Breathe In: The danger of looking at Felicity Jones’s face

Drake Doremus's pale blue drama stars Guy Pearce as a middle-aged musician looking for a break from his humdrum life. When British exchange student Sophie Williams (Felicity Jones) arrives, he sees a second chance to regain his youth.

Within the first three minutes of Breathe In, the stage is set for Felicity Jones’s entrance. Keith Reynolds (played by a whiskery Guy Pearce) is a frustrated part-time musician, who, like many an artist before him, has ceded his impulsive and unorthodox life to a regimen of bills, children and regular pay. He is a music teacher who was never meant to be a music teacher. Or so he says. He sits in his office (a sort of shrine to his adolescent self) and groans over letters from his employer (“Hello educators!”) reminding him that a new school year is about to commence. He hides photographs of his old band in a stationary box on his desk.

Keith’s wife Megan, played by the magnificent Amy Ryan (also known as Officer Beadie from The Wire), is drearily co-opted into the list of trivialities that make Keith’s a life worth leaving. She collects and sells antique cookie jars. She also claims to enjoy driving her daughter Lauren (Mackenzie Davis) from place to place. Lauren is a tall adolescent who likes hunky boys and swimming and not reading books, a populist contrast with her bohemian father. When Keith suggests the family might move to New York City, he is laughed at by his wife. What a boring old grown-up she is!

Into the humdrum steps Sophie Williams: a moody, adorably toothy ingénue from the UK staying with Keith and his family for a term, who just so happens to be a reluctant musical prodigy. When she joins Keith’s class he puts her on the spot, asking her to play something for her peers by way of introduction. She angrily bangs out one of Chopin’s warm-up routines, her thick black ponytail hanging over one shoulder as she grimaces at her teacher and host.

Initially indifferent, Keith’s interest is piqued. Here begins a series of will-they-won’t-they moments characterised by longing glances, pregnant silences and slow, staccato dialogue, improvised by the actors according to the method preferred by director Drake Doremus (who directed Jones in 2011 drama Like Crazy). The film, for all its Lolita-esque potential, is remarkably chaste. The pair’s magnetism is driven less by lust than the will to escape everything they see as holding them back. It is never exactly clear who is leading and who is being led.

In the meantime, Keith’s daughter Lauren is busy doing everything that Sophie is just too brooding and aloof to bother with: she is out getting drunk, being jealous and showing the kinds of vulnerabilities that would be expected of someone her age. When we are not being seduced by the handsomeness of Pearce and Jones, the gorgeous pale blue photography, lush interiors and deep, orchestral score (Keith is a cellist), it is the trials of Lauren and her mother Megan with whom we are most able to identify.

But just look at that face. Sophie’s mum, we learn, died when she was a child. She was raised by her aunt and pianist uncle, the latter having recently passed away - facts which might explain both the character’s talent and her dismissive behaviour – that is if she’s telling the truth.

Words pass between Keith and Sophie about “the rules” that keep them from doing what they want - rules which they could ignore, but not without paying for it (at least in the moral universe of US indie cinema). The narrative denouement attempts to compensate for the lingering melancholy by providing an almighty bang, though this dramatic surge isn’t necessarily the antidote required. For all the respect shown to Jones throughout the film (one pool-side scene aside), the simple premise of a middle-aged man constantly staring at a girl the same age as his daughter might have been unforgivable, if not for the fact that by looking at her face he is forced to see his own.

Breathe In is out now.

Breathe In is a film of looking and longing. Photograph: Indian Paintbrush.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times