Hold Your Breath (Dans la brume)

France/Canada (2018) Dir. Daniel Roby

Parents are forever in the bad books with their children for making decisions directly affecting them which they believe are in the child’s best interest but are rarely are seen that way. Of course, it is seldom appreciated or understood until the child gets older that making these decisions is never easy.

A young girl named Sarah (Fantine Harduin) has a rare incurable autoimmune condition called Stimberger’s syndrome, forcing her to live in a self-contained bubble. Both her parents, Mathieu (Romain Duris) and Anne (Olga Kurylenko), are scientists trying to find a cure. Matheiu returns from a trip to Canada where an untested programme might help Sarah but it means leaving Paris to move there, which Anna isn’t keen on.

That morning a brief earthquake hits Paris, releasing a toxic gas from underground that kills everything in its path and rises high above street level. Anna and Matheiu are safe in the top floor flat of elderly couple Lucien (Michel Robin) and Colette (Anna Gaylor), but Sarah is stuck in her bubble two floors below. With the batteries powering the bubble running low, her parents sacrifice their own health to get Sarah out of Paris.

Watching a natural disaster movie probably isn’t the best way to spend time during this lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic but Hold Your Breath is on Amazon Prime, has an interesting premise, is only 90 minutes long, and quite unusually, is French. Not known for disaster flicks, there is the curiosity factor in how the purveyors of laid-back cinema handle this genre.

“Laid back” appears to be the de facto approach to this film in the sense director Daniel Roby foregoes the usual raucous pandemonium and mayhem, something he achieves by wiping out most of the residents of Paris almost instantly. As refreshing as this may be, it also means the drama is somewhat downplayed, depriving the film of an urgency it so desperately needs.

Sarah is one of a few children with Stimberger’s, confining her to a hi-tech bubble that more resembles a spacecraft control hub. She may be permanently housebound but she stays in touch via Skype with her fellow sufferers or enjoys the sights of the world via a VR headset. Communication with her parents over a long distance is via walkie-talkie or mobile phone, just to keep things rooted in current times.

Due to the brisk run time, the backstories and character building is non-existent, so by the end of the film we are none the wise about Stimberger’s, what field of science Anna and Mathieu are in, why they live in different apartments, and so on. From this, we infer things are rocky between them but it also implies Mathieu living elsewhere was purely a spacing issue to accommodate Sarah’s bubble.

The earthquake and ensuing gas leak happen without warning and no explanation in its wake either, something you’d think as scientists Anna and Mathieu would be keen to find out at the first chance. But, in this instance, they are parents first and they devote their energies to keeping Sarah alive whilst formulating a way to leave Paris, which, ironically, they approach with a scientific mind.

Because they don’t overreact or succumb to hysteria thus grounding them in a reality recognisable to the audience, Anna and Mathieu become more interesting as characters, yet it is how they do everything for Sarah and don’t play martyr for everyone else which is equally refreshing to see. It is not through being unsympathetic or selfish but their motives are not based on playing the hero, rather doing right by their daughter.

Yet, Roby and writers fail to avoid all clichés and in doing so, ruin a good concept with nonsensical and poorly thought out plot holes. For instance, the gas kills everything in sight, yet when Mathieu and Anna go out to get some essential equipment, they are attacked by a feral dog. How did the dog survive when every other unmasked living entity perished?

I could go on, but that would mean spoiling things, but too many thing pop up that defy logic simply because the next step is to create another crisis point in putting Sarah’s safety at greater risk. And then there is he ending which many people have an issue with but I understood it perfectly despite its abruptness. Granted, it could have done with an explanation or fleshing out a little but it’s a neat little twist however you look at it.

However, it is not all bad – the visuals of Paris submerged by an ominous milky white fog are astounding, proving us with a collection of eerily lustrous tableau to savour, just as if the city in its natural state. With the gas essentially assuming the role as antagonist, we are spared most genre conventions like greedy self-preserving survivors, or in fighting born out being stir crazy.

Whilst being a French made disaster flick makes this a curiosity, having Romain Duris in the lead role is arguably more exciting. A commercially viable actor, his typical role is the uptight, tortured boyfriend/husband in highbrow outings, though this doesn’t stop him making an effort in playing Mathieu. Olga Kurylenko has done Bond and Hollywood action movies so this is less of a shock, but her role is the more emotionally grounded of the two as strong willed mother, wife and capable scientist Anna.

Quietly adding a quaint charm to the drama are veterans Michel Robin and Anna Gaylor, developing a natural chemistry as the kind hearted old couple. Sadly, even though Sarah is the axis around which the parental mission revolves, she is the one character with the least agency and screen time, as if she is not really in any danger at all.

Hold Your Breath is a high concept disaster movie that fails to match the ambition of its lofty ideas. By no means a bad film, just lacking imagination and depth but entertaining enough to pass the time.