Director Daniel Roby’s Just a Breath Away (Dans la Brume) is an ambitious French/Canadian co-production for its meager budget. The apocalyptic thriller has an intriguing setup; an earthquake in Paris unleashes a toxic gas from below ground, killing everyone almost instantly. Except for those that made it to high enough ground, that is. For parents Mathieu (Romain Duris) and Anna (Olga Kurylenko), the deadly gas brings an even more dire complication, as their daughter is stuck below in the gas, sealed in her hermetic chamber due to a genetic disease.
With the earthquake and the release of the gas, power has been knocked out across the city. It leaves Mathieu and Anna’s daughter, Sarah, even more vulnerable as her hermetic chamber is now forced to rely on a battery, one that drains and needs changing out every so many hours. It raises the stakes as it introduces time sensitivity to the fold. Sarah is stuck one floor below in their apartment, while her parents fled to their neighbors on the top floor. With the realization that the gas is slowly rising, Mathieu and Anna must come up with ways to descend below into the gas to not just change out the chamber’s batteries, but find answers and a long-term solution to their survival.
Roby makes excellent use of the budget. This apocalyptic thriller feels far bigger in scope than it really is. The wide sweeping shots of Paris’ familiar topography mostly drowned in the yellowish gas effectively serves as a visual reminder that this catastrophe is epic in scale. Yet, most of the story is within the confines of the family’s apartment building or the surrounding few blocks. As Mathieu finds ways to venture out into the gas-soaked city, he meets perilous obstacle after perilous obstacle with time constantly winding down. Vicious dogs, brutal falls, explosions, and dead bodies that litter the streets are thrown Mathieu’s way as he looks for ways to safely evacuate his family from the city.
From a thriller perspective, Just a Breath Away is a success. Well shot, tightly wound, and expertly paced to keep you engrossed in the journey. Duris is intense and pulls off the action well. Kurylenko isn’t given nearly as much to do, but rises to the occasion when the third act calls for her to handle some pivotal heavy lifting.
That’s also the biggest crux of the film; none of the characters are very well developed. It ultimately works because of the talent of its leads, but we know nothing about Mathieu except for his devotion as a father. We never get to know any of them beyond their superficial constraints. Without any nuance or layers, it makes predicting how this story will end obvious from the opening set up. Granted, thrillers don’t have to have complex characters to work, but Just a Breath Away wants to hit you in the feels hard. There are some emotional beats, but they don’t always register like they should.
Just a Breath Away is worth the watch, but it also follows the familiarity of textbook apocalyptic thrillers. There’s enough ambition and uniqueness in the concept to be on board this journey, though chances are you’ll see the ending a mile away. Roby has succeeded in crafting a well-executed story that feels grander than its budget, and the talented cast give their all even when limited by the script. It just doesn’t offer much that we haven’t already seen before.