Mélanie Laurent on Her New Film Breathe, Toxic Relationships, and Quentin Tarantino

Practically everyone in the world knows actress Mélanie Laurent at this point, either for her performance alongside Ewan McGregor in Beginners, her jaw-dropping work in Inglourious Basterds, or any of the other roles she's played. Few may know, however, that she's also a filmmaker with two features now under her belt. After debuting at the Cannes Film Festival — and being a candidate for the Queer Palm there — her second film Respire, translated to Breathe, opens in the U.S. this month.

The film, which Laurent adapted from Anne-Sophie Brasme's novel of the same name, follows two teenage girls: the timid Charlie and the charismatic, manipulative Sarah who spark up a friendship, full of passion and genuine love, before allowing it to descend into something fractured and unfamiliar. We'll refrain from spoiling any of the fun that comes from watching the feature, as it's a wild ride featuring two stellar performances from its young leads alongside strong direction from its filmmaker, that so rarely offers the audience a chance to (pardon the pun) breathe.

The film opens Friday at Coral Gables Art Cinema and next month at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. We got to chat on the phone with the talented filmmaker about Respire and was it a revealing conversation:

New Times: So immediately after watching the film, I bought a copy of the book and it's fascinating how much you've changed the structure of the story to suit the movie. I'd love to hear how you came upon the story and about the decisions you made in adapting it.
Mélanie Laurent: I read the book when I was 17 and the author was about the same age when she wrote it. And it was a huge success and everybody wanted the rights to the book. So I called her and we talked about the book and she was like, "Oh my god, I'm so happy to hear someone who really understands my book because they want to make a fictional relationship and change everything and I'm so happy to hear someone understand what I want."

So she gave me the rights, but at that moment, I was a baby so I didn't find any producers. And I'm happy I had to take time to work on other movies because I was too young to handle the subject, in a way. So I kind of forgot about the project and nobody did the movie, and when I saw my producer, he asked what was next. And I pitched the story after thinking about it, and he said we could do it.

I also didn't re-read the book before the adaptation; I wanted to adapt the memories of what I had. So I started to write everything and then I re-read it when I'd finished and was in shock about everything. When I spoke to the author again, she was like, "Go for it, I'm happy with your version." And I invented so many things! Like, one thing I really wanted was the relationships between child and mother. And I really wanted an excuse for Sarah to act the way she did. Because in the book she has a very friendly mother and you wonder why she's so fucked up.

I really wanted to create tension between them for Charlie to understand Sarah. And in the book, Charlie is very beautiful and complex and a little crazy; she had no friends and she was too needy.

Yeah, she was very obsessive in the book. And you made it more about friendship and relationships and how they change. When you're a teenager, it can be both about loving and hating your best friend, and that shift isn't something you see that well-explored in movies.
I never thought about it as just a movie for teenagers. I think my idea was to talk about that subject because I know that subject too well and I've known way too many Sarah's in my life. And I remember when I was writing the script, I was talking to women in their 50s and 60s who said that this was their husband. This is something that can happen to anyone. This is a movie for human beings, of any age, because you can experience that at any time and age.

I never thought of it like that, but it's really interesting to hear about how that kind of toxic relationship can affect anyone. It proves how mature the movie is and the kind of reach it can have.
While writing the script, I thought a lot about Martha Marcy May Marlene and how you see her do nothing very often. And all that tension and sound building up, and I love it so much. And, of course, I feel that it was all perfect for the subject they were exploring.

And you do a lot of similar things, making it very intimate. There's a lot you show through images rather than through words. One scene that's striking and beautifully shot is one of the confrontations between Sarah and Charlie at a New Year's Party.
That was the last day of the shoot.

Yeah. It was the last scene and I was crying too much so I couldn't really direct them. So everyone was crying and I told Sarah to use that for the emotion in the scene, and they were really moved for it.

What I love most as a director is not just an amazing scene, but when you write something and then it's the most amazing feeling to find a reason for every single shot in the movie. Every single shot. And then to be able to tell you exactly why I shot it that way. With that scene, I wanted to work on the sound, I wanted to make her very alone and sad in the middle of everybody while everybody is having fun.

And it's really hard, and you can see in Sarah's face that she saw everything. She has to tell her she's going to kill her as a threat so she comes up to her ear and the sound changes and everything. I had to shoot it so closely, because she's the focal point, and everyone else has to be out of focus, in that moment, she can say anything. The music, the people, the party, and everything just stops at that moment in her life.

Everything is totally distorted in that scene except for her. Now that you say that I want to ask about every shot in the movie. (Laughs)
Well, let's start at the beginning! First scene... (Laughs)

I wish we could! But what was it like finding these two amazing young actresses [Joséphine Japy and Lou de Laâge] because I don't think I've seen such great performances from actresses under 21 in a long time.
They're gonna be happy to hear that. I had two pictures of them, like two faces on my desk, when I was writing. And we met and I was nervous because I knew they were my two actresses already. Lou, when I met her, was immediately like, "Please tell me I'm going to be Sarah," and I said yeah because she'd always played the really nice girl. Joséphine didn't ask if she was Charlie, she was like "I am Charlie," and she absolutely was.

And we worked for like five hours the next day, which went terribly. I think there were two crew members and Lou was over-acting and Joséphine would do nothing and I was like, "Oh my god this is exactly the opposite of what I was waiting for." I was up all night thinking to myself about what I was going to do and just thought: this is part of my job and I'm sure they're going to be great and we're gonna do it. And I called them the next day and said, "Okay, we're gonna do this movie together, but we need to work on it."

The moment I said it, they became the characters. And I even filmed the auditions because I was too nervous because you want something so much and you lose all confidence when it's not good, but we really did work on it and it worked out because I really loved them and they loved each other.

Right, and I feel like you really need to care about the people you're working with for certain films, and not necessarily something this intense. It's almost better to have a positive bond past the performance to make it happen right.
I don't believe in movies with suffering. I don't like that and I don't believe in that. I can see amazing movies with a lot of suffering, but I'm not sure that the reason it's so amazing or that I want to work that way. I like working in a loving environment when there's someone I care about in front of me.

And how has being an actress and working with such a wide variety of directors with their own styles influenced you as a filmmaker yourself?
I think I was the luckiest young director ever because I was in cinema school and I have served so many amazing director. And the difficult part you find along the way is that when you've worked on set with Tarantino and you find yourself on the set of your own movie, you have to pick things yourself. And it's so personal, finding your own eye, and what I love the most about this job now is finding my own way to film things. My biggest fear was that I was going to pretend to be so many different directors and what I love most is that I recently did a perfume commercial and it was like I'd found my own way to film things. I'm glad I've found my own way while working with others closely in a very realistic way.

Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter @woahitsjuanito
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.