THIS WEEK’S LOS ANGELES RELEASE of French actress/director Mélanie Laurent’s bildungsroman film Breathe [Respire] introduces American audiences to an engaging female friendship, both on-screen and off-. Laurent, who adapted wunderkind author Anne-Sophie Brasme’s bestselling, and controversial, 2001 French novel, published when the author was only 17, has crafted a startling cinematic companion to Brasme’s original elegy to girlhood. As the director now recalls, the troubled characters in Breathe so shocked the teenage Laurent (who was also 17 at the book’s release) that she sought out Brasme for the rights to the film despite having no directorial experience. Brasme happily consented to the unusual proposal. After nearly 15 years, the interesting, telepathic correspondence between the two teenage girls, now in their early 30s and hugely successful in their respective careers, has borne cinematic fruit.
The fractured friendship occupying the two young characters in Breathe is an altogether more disturbing affair. The novella details the destructive, and ultimately homicidal, bond between Parisian teenagers Charlene and Sarah over the course of four years. Originally composed as a frame story by Brasme, Breathe begins from the perspective of a remorseless Charlene, who languishes in prison for having murdered Sarah in a fit of rage. Echoing the jailhouse allocution of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Charlene recounts the traumas of her youth — a corrosive domestic life and the sudden disappearance of a childhood companion whose absence leaves her vulnerable to a turbulent adolescence. The impassive but self-destructive loner then has her world upended when the attractive and exuberant transfer student Sarah takes Charlene beneath her wing, only to expose her new best friend to the full brunt of a cruel sociopathy.
Breathe’s cautionary tale on the perils of youth originates, at least in part, in the uniquely French “coming of age” genre, extoled in novels by Flaubert, Cocteau, Duras, and Francoise Sagan, and by directors like Jean Vigo, Francois Truffaut, René Clément, Maurice Pialat, and Asia Argento, but Brasme and Laurent’s narrative of distaff obsession limns a far bleaker portrait of contemporary childhood.
Brasme had yet to graduate from high school in the regional city of Metz when publication of Breathe made her into something of a literary sensation in the nascent YA genre: a Sagan for the millennial generation. Although the novella remains her most famous work, Brasme went on to publish two other successful books (including 2014’s Notre vie antérieure) and graduate from the Sorbonne, after which she returned to Metz to teach French literature at lycée Poncelet de Saint-Avold. The Parisian-born Laurent is perhaps best recognized by American cinema-goers for her blistering performance as Shosanna Dreyfus, the Jewish femme fatale in Quentin Tarantino's epic, World War II drama, Inglourious Basterds (2009), in addition to appearing alongside Ewan McGregor and Jake Gyllenhaal and co-starring in Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's upcoming By the Sea. But with Laurent’s debut directorial effort Les Adoptes (2011), a sentimental meditation on the fraught relationship between sisters, she emerged as an accomplished feminist scenarist and filmmaker in her own rite. Her moody and spare interpretation of Brasme’s Breathe, featuring young actresses Josephine Japy and Lou de Laâge, instantly evokes the likeminded aesthetic of female auteurs like Argento, Catherine Breillat, and Claire Denis.
Despite the film’s modest budget and trappings, its success has resonated with audiences and critics from Cannes Critics’ Week to the Toronto International Film Festival, Philadelphia Festival and AFI Film Fest, where reviews have been overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Naturally it has also created a wider, English-language audience for Brasme, who is revisiting her first novel on the screen after a decade apart from its troubled protagonists.
In celebration of Breathe’s Los Angeles premiere, the Los Angeles Review of Books contacted Ms. Laurent and Ms. Brasme to discuss their collaborative relationship from page to screen, the difficulties of writing for children, and the question of female sexuality in French culture. Throughout, they return to the topics of friendship and authorship as abiding themes of their work as well as the often-difficult task faced by women who seek to honor the achievements of girl- and womanhood.
ON THE FRENCH ARTISTIC TRADITION OF CHILDHOOD
ERIK MORSE: I want to begin with your interests in visualizing the experiences of youth in your films The Adopted and in Breathe. Will you tell me a bit about why the subject of childhood and particularly girlhood continues to serve as central themes for your work?
MÉLANIE LAURENT: I never realized that.
ML: No. But it’s funny because in my other film, it’s a relationship between two girls, like a very passionate relationship, too. I read Breathe when I was 17. And [Anne-Sophie] was 17 too. It was a huge success in France. Everyone was saying she was the new Francoise Sagan. And everybody was excited to get the rights to film the book. I was in shock when I read the book. I loved it so much. And I felt like I was the character Charlie in school myself. I felt like it was really my story in a way. So I called [Anne-Sophie] when I was only 17 and she gave me the rights to the book. But I couldn’t get it made. And I was so happy that they said no, because I was only a baby then and I needed some distance from it. I did my first movie Les Adoptes, which wasn’t really personal. I just wanted to write a story. I wasn’t a mother and I didn’t have any sisters, my life was really, really different. When I decided to make a second movie, I remembered the big shock I had when I read Breathe, so I decided it was the movie that I had to do.
EM: Breathe’s plot explores the European “coming of age” genre made famous by directors like Jean Vigo, Francois Truffaut, René Clément, Marcel Carné, Maurice Pialat, Catherine Breillat, and others. Were any of these directors particularly influential on your own interest in childhood on screen?
ML: When I was writing the script to Breathe I was just watching American, independent films. Films like Martha Marcy May Marlene, which was my favorite movie at the time and inspired me so much. I wasn’t watching any French movies at that moment.
ANNE-SOPHIE BRASME: I did not know any of these directors at the time I wrote Breathe, except for Catherine Breillat (I was very touched by A ma soeur perhaps because of the main character’s malaise and the complex relationship she has with her older sister). At 16, my sense of culture was still quite limited; I had not read many classics, and even fewer female authors. It was later that I discovered Virginia Woolf (my favorite novelist), Marguerite Yourcenar and Simone de Beauvoir, all those women whose hypersensitivities still move me.
EM: What do you think is the particular French cinematic fascination with childhood and what is unique to the way they present the experience of youth on screen?
ML: I have a lot of American friends who ask me, “How do you write for children?” because they don’t write for children in the same way. I think it was a big debate. I think maybe in [French] culture children are not treated as the king … l’enfant roi [“a spoiled child”], they have a lot of freedom and independence. So like in Maurice Pialat’s A nos amours, [the main character] is alone but not lonely. Nobody breaks her. Our cultures are so different. I’m French so I don’t even realize why.
ASB: In terms of the “coming of age” genre (I did not know this expression until today!), whether at the cinema or in literature it is a theme that speaks to me a lot and that I believe will always be present in what I write. I am fascinated by the question of, “What do we become?” And I am sure that we always carry in ourselves the adolescent or young adult that we were. Recently Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings turned me upside down. However, I did not know that there was a "French fascination" for this theme.
ON THE ADAPTATION OF BREATHE INTO A FILM
EM: Tell me about the process of adapting Anne-Sophie’s novel, particularly since the novel is a first person confessional, but the film, by contrast, is very quiet, restrained and even architectural in places. So what was the process like?
ML: It was kind of easy. I hadn’t read the book again for all those years. So I started to write the script with just my memories of the book from 15 years before. I remembered the tension and I remembered the last scene; I remembered the vacation. But I read the book again after I wrote the script. And I thought, “Oh my god, I changed everything.” So I called [Anne-Sophie] to let her know I changed all these things. I think I put a lot of personal things in it too.
EM: At the time of Breathe’s publication in 2001, the novel was a critical and commercial success in France and you became quite celebrated as a result. As I understand it, many filmmakers were requesting the rights to film a movie version, but you agreed to offer them to Melanie, who was only 17 and had not yet directed any films. Do you remember how you met each other and why you chose to give her the rights?
ASB: When Mélanie contacted me in 2002, I was euphoric. Of course, the project was a dream: we were the same age, had the same sensibility! I would have blindly given her the rights, but my publisher decided otherwise, because Melanie had no experience. Finally fate got it right. Twelve years later, Melanie has had time to build and establish herself as a director. She was also able to step back from the story, and brought a perspective she would not have had at 17.
EM: What was it like to ‘revisit’ your first novel — 15 years after its publication, and following two other published books — and to see it dramatized on the screen? Do you think Josephine Japy and Lou de Laâge brought new dimensions and an original interpretation to the complex relationship between Charlene and Sarah?
ASB: It was a real shock for me to see the film, to rediscover the story that I had forgotten and I thought I got rid of it. In reality, it had remained deep inside of me, and to see it interpreted on screen got to me. Both actresses are great. Lou de Lââge looks strangely like the girl who inspired Sarah: she is soft and chilling at the same time and mesmerizing! As for Josephine Japy, I loved her sensibility, the authenticity of her performance, it was full of nuance and power.
EM: In French literary theory, we read of the concept of L’Amitié as a form of writing devoted to the activity of collaboration with an absence or discontinuity maintained by its participants — a shared, silent reading of work between “strangers.” We see such a relationship between writers like Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, and Jean-Luc Nancy. Throughout these relationships a “friendship” is based on a shared reading and re-reading of each others' works. I am very interested in how you and Melanie, both 17 at the time of your publication of Breathe and now 30+ at the time of the film, maintained a “silent” relationship during the transformation of the book from page to screen? Would you consider it a kind of friendship?
ASB: I did not know this theoretical concept … So obviously it’s a little weird for me to compare my relationship to Melanie Laurent with that of Blanchot and Bataille! Things were very simply done: we met by chance and we quickly understood each other. Then the years passed, each of us evolving on our own (well, mostly Mélanie!). And I was very happy to find her again, to see that she had not forgotten the book and she would give it a second life in some sense. Voilà, that is the story of our personal and artistic encounter, it’s that simple.
EM: You mentioned as you were writing the screenplay that you imbued the framework of the book with your own adolescent experiences in school. How autobiographical did the script become at a certain point? How much were you like the character of Charlie?
ML: Well, I was rejected by a lot of girls in every school I went to. I don’t know, I was just really young. The personal thing was from a love story I had when I was 23 with a real psychopath. And the last speech from Sarah in the movie came from the exact words he said to me. I didn’t invent anything. And then I’ve met a lot of Sarahs. I think it’s really hard for actresses to be very close friends because it is a competitive job. So I’m really glad when I meet women in my life who love other women. It’s so nice.
EM: In America there has been a popular uprising against the phenomenon of bullying in schools. It’s been all over the news recently, and has become fodder for these cautionary tales of youth. So a lot of discussions around this film in America have been around this central theme of Sarah’s bullying of Charlie.
ML: I don’t think it’s just a teenage movie. I think it’s a universal subject. I remember when I was writing the script and I was telling my story to women in their 50s or 60s and they would say, “Oh my god, Sarah is just like totally my husband!” And they would describe exactly the relationship I had when I was in my 20s. And thank god I left him and had a new life after that. So I realized that Sarah can appear in your life no matter what type of person you are, at any age, at any time. You meet that person and they change everything very quickly.
EM: There is a prophetic moment at the beginning of the film where a teacher in the classroom referencing Nietzsche says, “Passion is harmful when it becomes excessive, which is most of the time.” So it made me wonder how much this film enters into the realm of a love story in the very bizarre way that teenagers can so easily fall into love.
ML: But I think of it more of a friendship. When your best friend is so rock ’n’ roll and so cool and free. I think she loves her because she wants to be her. I wanted to make it more than just a normal relationship but I didn’t want to make it anything sexual or erotic at all. I just wanted to keep that tension.
EM: I wonder how or if your feelings toward the characters of Charlene and Sarah have changed over the last 15 years? It’s rather like reconnecting with lost friends or family members when you return to characters you created in an earlier era of your life.
ASB: When I think about Charlene and Sarah, or I see them again in Mélanie’s film, it is a strange feeling: I look at them from the perspective of an adult (and professor) and therefore, from a distance, and I tell myself, “Thank god, I am not 17!”; at the same time, they are always inside me, hanging around somewhere, to remind me of the teenager I was and the sometimes naive and submissive adult I still am today in the face of criticism.
EM: Charlene and Sarah’s relationship is often oversimplified by critics either as one of the bully/victim or as two lesbians. But it’s much more complex to me. I’m curious if you saw any part of Breathe as a tragic love story, in the very bizarre way that teenagers can often naively blur the boundaries between friendship and love?
ASB: Yes, of course we can talk about love and passion without necessarily falling into the cliché of the lesbian relationship. It's more complex than that in adolescence.
ON THE EROTICIZATION OF GIRLHOOD
EM: At a later point in the film, you create this beautiful, almost architectural tracking shot of the inside of Sarah’s home that reminded me very much of some of the book covers for Georges Perec’s La vie: mode d’emploi, where the face of the apartment building has been sheared away and you see inside of all the rooms.
EM: It gives this sense of peeping into the most intimate parts of the girls’ domestic lives.
ML: That was the only shot on tracks in the film. And it was the only shot I imagined when I was writing the script. That was the only shot where I knew ahead of time exactly how was I going to film it. It was very, very precise. And for the rest, I improvised a lot. I followed my actors but I added some improvised shots every day.
EM: I was thinking a lot the history of films about teen girls and how the significance of such films are often lensed sexually from men’s perspective to nullify its much more powerful themes of close, female relationships. Have you found that men’s and women’s reactions to the film have been divided according to these sexual presumptions?
ML: Well, before anybody even saw the movie they were saying, “So it’s kind of like the same movie as [Blue Is the Warmest Color].” And I thought, “Well, maybe you should see the movie.” Somehow because [Breathe] is about two girls, then they must be gay and have a sexual relationship. I had the comparison all the time. And it drove me crazy. I loved [Blue Is the Warmest Color] so much, but it’s a real sexual love story. It’s not some perverted relationship, it’s just a woman’s love story. It’s about being gay and falling in love with a woman. Breathe is kind of the exact opposite; it’s absolutely not the same subject. But because it was about two women, it was obviously sexual and kind of like a gay movie. And I was like, “What?! It’s more complicated than that.” I don’t know. People just don’t want to understand these things. It was easier just to [bring up] the old story — that the characters are together — instead of there being some kind of attraction between them that isn’t sexual. After that it became funny to observe how female directors film sexuality, except maybe for Catherine Breillat. I think we have a lot of respect for the body of the woman. We don’t want to film the woman in a bad position. When I see one of Jane Campion’s movies, or I made a new film with Angelina Jolie [By the Sea] with a lot of sexual scenes — they put a lot of poetry in it. They respect the woman so much.
ASB: For sure I had more female than male feedback, but I do not remember “erotic interpretations” from either of them. So I can not really answer that question …