Just a Breath Away Review

Supposedly, if you want to know how wealthy someone is in Beijing, you simply ask them what floor they live on. The bigger the number, the wealthier they are. To live above the air pollution is a much coveted position, one which, in the case of the protagonists of Dans La Brume (the film’s English title is Just a Breath Away), can be a fate changer. 

In Daniel Roby’s Canada-France co-production, Paris is suddenly overwhelmed by a dense fog following an earthquake. It surges from underground and settles below the rooftops. Mathieu (Romain Duris) and his wife or ex-wife (their relationship is never clarified) Anna (Olga Kurylenko) are parents to Sarah (Fantine Harduin), who has a rare disease that forces her to live in a glass bubble in order to survive. Much like A Quiet Place, the family’s ability to adapt to their daughter’s disability before the disaster is what saves them during it. Mathieu’s resourcefulness is apparent from the beginning. As soon as the deadly fog shoots down the street like a tsunami, he legs it, making his way up to his elderly neighbors’ penthouse. With one floor and a hell of a long inhale between them, Matthieu, Anna and their daughter communicate via walkie talkies, as they try to devise a plan to evacuate, while making sure to change the batteries to her air-purifying bubble every so often. With the stakes so high but the characters so ill-defined, the film feels like a missed opportunity.

The film is so focused on Anna and Mathieu saving their daughter, but it fails to add meat to the bones of their relationship. Duris and Kurylenko perform with an appropriate intensity, but they each have so little to work with that their portrayals end up feeling overwrought. With all that worry about batteries running out, Roby forgets to charge the film’s emotional core. In an infuriating scene, Anna takes a moment from all the chaos to talk to her daughter about the afterlife and being in love. Considering the poor timing of the conversation (Sarah’s bubble batteries are running very low) and its generalized emotions, this scene feels like a parody of a tender mother/daughter scene. Since the film had a modest $15 million budget, honing in on the relationships and conflict would’ve been a great opportunity. But the film has neither great action sequences nor nuanced character psychologies.

Carpenter’s The Fog and King’ The Mist explored tiny town dynamics, but Roby misses the opportunity to study the capital city. A vision through binoculars reveals destruction and anarchy atop Montmartre where all the survivors have amassed, but that’s the last we see or hear of it. There is an inspired shot of an S.O.S sign hanging from Notre-Dame, but both of these visions of chaos feel like glimpses of better films. Furthermore, the film does not explore the politics of its spaces. When living in a highly coveted (and very expensive) property is what keeps you alive, the wealthy have a clear advantage. Who gets to survive in a disaster, and who has access to aid are crucial, topical questions. But, like most films of the genre, Dans La Brume avoids such political queries.

But Anna and Mathieu’s jobs go mostly undefined. Anna calls herself a physicist, but unlike Arrival’s integral use of Louise Banks’ linguistics expertise, it’s merely a title. And as for Mathieu, who climbs Parisian rooftops and fights an armed police officer, we don’t get so much as job title to offer up a clue as to how he learned his survival skills. Indeed, despite his permanently furrowed brow, he never looks truly uncomfortable. Instead, he looks more like a gruff Ralph Lauren model with his oversized wool coat and desert boots. The apocalypse never looked so good.

The film avoids none of the clichés of disaster cinema. It’s complete with a shot of a dead dog, parental sacrifice and a reliance on old school technologies like walkie-talkies and a radio, but Dans La Brume offers nothing new to the genre. Opening with ethereal shots of a lush trees and a carefree girl running in a green field, the film comes across as a half baked anti-pollution polemic. But it holds neither federal agencies or massive corporations accountable. It merely presents the fog as matter-of-fact. Though deadly, the fog doesn’t hide any horrors. Nothing truly unexpected (except perhaps a rabid dog) or terrifying emerges from the fog.

The visual effects, however, are compelling. The fog, without doing much, does feel threatening. It slowly creeps up the stairs, along the banisters, seeping the world in sepia. It cannot be fought with guns or explosives (this is France after all, not America) but can only be endured. Dans La Brume proves that a successful disaster film does not need dazzling special effects for the audience to sense the weight of a disaster. But it does need compelling characters.

/Film Rating: 5 out of 10

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