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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Over tea, the dominatrix told me that keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job

"There is great power in being submissive," she explained.

As fetishes go it was fairly mild: just a bit of sissification – or, getting yelled at while wearing ladies’ clothing. He was a top entertainment attorney, a powerful man. He wore stockings under his suit to work. His wife didn’t want to engage – so she sent him to a professional, who put him in full make-up and forced him to run around a dungeon in high heels. Jenny Nordbak is younger than you’d expect for a retired dominatrix, stirring her tea in a King’s Cross café.

Nordbak, 29, serviced the movie moguls and lawyers of Tinseltown for two years. As a child, her Barbies always ended up gagged and bound. As a student, she defied a controlling boyfriend by dropping her trousers during a game of beer pong. And at 22 she took up her whip, for philosophical reasons, tired of bad sex and of the sexual politics women often live by: who starts it, who ends it and what to expect in between.

At her sex dungeon in Los Angeles, keeping a straight face was the hardest part of the job – especially during consultations, which worked like therapy sessions to unlock client desire. There was all the obvious stuff, such as the head-scissors (choking with the thighs). But there was also the man who wanted to lick a broom, and the one who asked her to ride a bike into him.

The stereotype is true: the more powerful they were in life, she says, the more demeaning their fantasies. “But I still wonder which way round it came: did they need a break from being in control, or had they become powerful because they secretly always felt humiliated?” She failed to control her laughter with one, only for him to pant in gratitude: “Mistress, no one’s ever laughed at me like that.”

Tea with Nordbak is a lesson in the lexicon of the underworld. Pro-dommeSub-flogger. Boner-check. Often her clients cried during sessions but they were clearly enjoying themselves – so I ask her in more depth about the nature of submission.

There’s a point that some people like to get to, she explains, in a low voice, called the sub-space. “A psychological state like being on drugs. Someone once compared it to a runner’s high. But it’s more intense because someone is inflicting it on you.” Nordbak has been there and didn’t like it much. But submission is misunderstood, she says – “It is powerful to be submissive!” – just as the desire to dominate is misrepresented in Fifty Shades of Grey as some kind of “affliction”, something you do if you’re broken somehow.

In Nordbak’s world it’s rather more nuanced; a dominatrix, after all, is submitting to a submissive’s desire. And working bloody hard. A dungeon pair build great trust between them, and great communication: sometimes your life depends on it.

She’s only once thought she’d killed someone – a woman, at the Burning Man festival in Nevada, who fainted during a headlock. Nordbak ran out of her tent for help, dressed only in boots and a strap-on. Female clients generally came to her because they wanted to learn her ways.

She gave it up when she started to get jaded, beating someone and thinking about her dinner. But her time as a pro-domme taught her to be more assertive in all areas of her life. “How does someone know what you want, in any area of life, if you don’t tell them?” she says. “Another person is never going to read your mind.”

Who’d have thought that S&M, the world of the rope and the ball gag, was all about communication? As with homosexuality, she thinks we all lie somewhere on the spectrum – a little bit submissive or dominant, whether we know it or not.

She is married now with a baby, and writing books. There is only one thing she misses and that is the look on a man’s face when you lead him across the room by the balls.

“They shut down,” she says, passing her palm over her eyes. “They follow you. They will do anything. Every woman should have that experience.” 

“The Scarlett Letters” by Jenny Nordbak is published by St Martin’s Press

https://www.amazon.com/Jenny-Nordbak/e/B01IZ1MQLG

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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