Drake Doremus is a brave man. His new movie, Breathe In, tackles the coup de foudre that fells an older man and a much younger woman, cinematic territory that Sofia Coppola redefined with Lost in Translation. But where Coppola sustained a tender erotic arc throughout the movie, Doremus’ effort is more schizophrenic, as if he has added to the first half of one movie the second half of another that happens to share the same characters.
Breathe In begins as a restrained chamber piece. English exchange student Sophie (Felicity Jones) thinks she is spending her semester abroad in New York, and finds herself instead marooned in the city’s wealthy exurbs. Keith and Megan Reynolds (Pearce and Amy Ryan) think they will be hosting a bubbly teenager like their daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) and instead find themselves warily circling a mature young woman.
Even before Sophie arrives, the couple’s lives are on the cusp of disruption, as Lauren is leaving for college. Keith, a high school music teacher, is auditioning for a permanent chair in the city orchestra where he subs, and Amy is worrying at the potential loss of her middle-class idyll, enjoyed until now at the expense of her husband’s artistic ambitions. As Sophie is a talented pianist, it’s only a matter of time before she and Keith become entangled.
At first, the movie subverts those expectations. It’s not clear whether Keith is falling in love with Sophie or with his own, newly rejuvenated capacity to create music. In these early scenes, she shifts from muse to co-conspirator and back again. In one delightful sequence the day before his audition, she talks Keith through a relaxation exercise: while he obediently closes his eyes, the camera closes slowly on his veined, aging, eyelids, an image that captures both the poignancy and fierce hope of Keith’s last grasp for the creative life he abandoned when his daughter was born.
But rather than sustain such intriguing ambiguity, Breathe In boils over into conventional bathos as it accelerates towards an overwrought closure. This even as the film does conjure a series of impressive visual compositions. The Reynolds’ apparently spacious Victorian is repeatedly rendered in close frames that suggest the family’s emotional claustrophobia, interior scenes shot to underline the lack of space for both the inhabitants and the camera. Door jambs, window frames, and furniture obscure our view, we only glimpse rooms as fragments.
The bedroom Lauren has to share with Sophie is nothing more than a boho boxroom, too small for one teenager, much less two. While it’s hard, logically, to believe that such a large house would offer not a single spare bedroom for a guest, it creates a sense of imposed intimacy between the girls. It’s a sense made all the more uncomfortable by insistently minimal illumination, enhanced by cinematographer John Guleserian’s saturation of each frame in visual anomie, all dark monotones and flat white light.
Such visual details suggest as well a nostalgia at work in Breathe In, in references to the erotic and sensual complexities of Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee or some of Truffaut’s work from the ’60s and ’70s. But as the plot turns the relationship between Keith and Sophie into a rash and pedestrian encounter, Doremus abandons what his movie shares with these predecessors. This leaves his characters’ search for self-knowledge unenlightening, for both them and us. As they return to the status quo no wiser, we also feel cheated.