There is a significant danger in premiering a female-led French-language adolescence tale with a lesbian slant on the Croisette the year after “Blue is the Warmest Color” won the Palme(s) in such memorable style. But it’s a danger that Melanie Laurent’s “Respire,” one of our greatest Cannes surprises so far, largely avoids, by establishing itself as a very different animal from the outset. Laurent’s film is if no less heartfelt and sincerely delivered, less concerned with evoking the joys and miseries of first love than with outlining the potentially disastrous effects of a love gone sour, curdled into a helpless kind of obsessiveness.
Providing an excellent showcase for the talents of her young, indecently photogenic cast––especially the two principal ingenues––it also confirms the talent of Laurent (not so long an ex-ingenue herself) behind the camera, as she makes good on the promise of her already solid debut “The Adopted.” In fact, right up until the film’s very closing moments, in which the carefully maintained tension and tone snaps under the ratchet of one melodramatic turn too many, it is not just an absorbing performance piece, but a film of real directorial confidence and flair.
Charlie (Josephine Japy) is a 17-year-old girl in her final year of school, who is immediately taken with the new girl in her class, Sarah (Lou de Laage), whose mother, an NGO worker in Nigeria, has sent her to France to graduate. They become firm friends, the wilder, more outgoing Sarah liberating the rather quieter Charlie, even going on holiday together. But during that holiday their relationship, to that point a halcyon blur of sudden conspiratorial fits of laughter, and holding each other’s hair back when vomiting, starts to take on a darker tinge, slowly becoming infected with jealousy and possessiveness. They grow wary of each other, Charlie confused and unsure of her feelings toward Sarah, and Sarah nursing secrets of her own, until eventually this wariness turns to all-out psychological warfare, waged by Sarah, and seemingly masochistically absorbed by Charlie.
You can probably see already the potential for an overwrought daytime-soap style treatment of this story, but Laurent’s touch is deft and sure, and remarkably subtle; even when the arc is familiar, the details feel so well-observed and specific that they largely avoid cliché. The manner of their initial falling out, for example, is not so obvious as to be over a boy, though male interest is used as a pawn in the one-upmanship game by both girls at one point or another. But really, in spending time not just with Sarah and Charlie, but with the supporting cast, also largely female, including Charlie’s mother and her aunt as well as her childhood best friend Victoire, and having the kind of compassion for them all that Laurent does, her sharp eye for the many ways in which women can be a source of support for each other as well as a source of bitterness and spite gives the film both its heart and its surprisingly keen edge.
Particularly impressive is how layered the movie becomes, as we note echoes of the central dynamic in other relationships around Charlie. The template for her feelings of rejection by Sarah, for example, is set up in her own treatment of loyal Victoire, and her masochistic streak is mirrored by her mother’s constant forgiveness of her father’s transgressions. But it’s that Charlie is oblivious to the fact that she might be in any way responsible for her misery that gives the film its cleverness and ambiguity, because while most of it is told from Charlie’s point of view, Laurent almost always pulls back from the brink of making Sarah an all-out villain by, just in the nick of time, allowing us a flash of her perspective too.
This works to quite brilliant effect during a particular climactic moment when, on the foot of some really monstrously callous behavior toward Charlie at a juncture at which she had clearly hoped for a reconciliation, Sarah delivers a long, spiteful speech that gently but comprehensively upends our sympathies and invites a whole new reading of their relationship. In it, Sarah outlines all the ways she feels that Charlie, who casts herself eternally as the victim, has herself been the cruel one; her passive-aggression and instinct for martyrdom are tools for manipulation just as powerful as Sarah’s more openly hostile, and, despite all her lies, somehow more honest behavior. If a friend should be a true mirror, at exactly the point at which they become irrevocable enemies, Sarah is perhaps the truest friend Charlie could have–it’s just a shame that the one major sour note the film strikes is in the overdramatization of Charlie’s reaction to those very revelations.
The film is based on a novel, and so no doubt that final twist is there in the source material, but Laurent does such a delicate job of establishing a kind of balanced ambiguity throughout that the heightened ending upsets that ecosystem and slightly undoes some of that good work. It smacks of wanting to go out with a bang, when in fact the film’s endlessly shifting sands of sympathy and identification are provocative and intelligent enough not to need the final flourish, that could uncharitably be called a gimmick. Still, it shouldn’t detract too much from the impressiveness of Laurent’s achievement here–her beautifully shot, radiantly acted and artistically made film (we were especially impressed with the alternately woozy and crisp editing, her powerful transitions and her use of sound) is in all other respects a burnished gem, and another fine addition to the line-up of films dealing in the teenage female experience, in which this year’s Cannes has already proven so rich. [B+]
Bonus: Listen to a 40 minute Film Society of Lincoln Center chat with Melanie Laurent.