A lethal toxic fog of unknown origin is the chief antagonist in Canadian director Daniel Roby’s “Just A Breath Away”. French language films set in Paris tend to be romantic comedies, dramas, or period pieces. Roby and a team of three writers offer us a light blend of genres but at its core their movie is very much a disaster thriller. And despite its modest budget, the scale and scope of the disaster is larger than you would expect.
The film’s lone shortcoming is in the development of its characters. It’s not a huge issue since we do get all the information we need to have emotional connections with them. But it does feel like it misses some opportunities to dig deeper into these people and what makes their relationships work.
Romain Duris and Olga Kurylenko play Mathieu and Anna, parents of a young daughter named Sarah (Belgian actress Fantine Harduin) who suffers from Stimberger’s Syndrome. It’s a genetic condition that restricts Sarah to living in a hermetic bubble chamber. For over 12 years Mathieu and Anna have searched for a cure and it has clearly taken a toll on their marriage. Anna seems content with finally having her daughter home. Mathieu is still looking for a cure and willing to try anything, even an experimental treatment in far off Canada.
Then along comes trouble. A sudden earthquake unleashes a toxic gas from underground. It sweeps through the entire city sending Paris into chaos and killing anyone who inhales it. As the deadly fog-like cloud settles, only those in top floor apartments and on rooftops are left to survive. Mathieu and Anna are forced to leave Sarah in the protection of her bubble as they scramble to the top floor of their apartment building.
What makes the tension even thicker is a city-wide blackout which forces Sarah’s chamber to switch to auxiliary power. With a limited battery life and their daughter on a gas-filled lower floor, Mathieu and Anna must find a way to keep their daughter alive amid seemingly impossible circumstances.
Ruby cut his cinematic teeth in cinematography and you get a really good sense of that. He and his cinematographer Pierre-Yves Bastard offer up several striking and creative images. Some of the best are rooftop shots looking out across the city while capturing the fog’s widespread effect. Just as impressive is his clever use of camera angles and movement specifically in some of the more action-oriented scenes.
Duris and Kurylenko both give really good performances as does 88-year-old Michel Robin who plays the kind elderly owner of the top floor apartment who gives Mathieu and Anna refuge. They all help give “Just A Breath Away” just enough emotional heft. Daniel Roby does the rest, directing a tense and imaginative disaster picture that doesn’t get bogged down in origins. We never fully know what caused the catastrophe which may frustrate some. I must say it didn’t bother me at all.
VERDICT – 4 STARS