In Jaco Bouwer’s BREATHING IN, Annie, the sickly daughter of mysterious caretaker Anna, repeats a whispery chant to prevent herself from falling asleep.
Arriving at the tail end of this year’s Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, I walked into the late-night screening groggy and tired after a week’s worth of watching movies and churning out reviews. Against all odds, I not only managed to stay awake throughout the South African filmmaker’s newest feature but found myself under its beguiling spell. It’s so chock full of mystical incantations and witchy meditations that they seem to leak out of the screen and work their magic on the audience.
Based on the beloved play by Reza de Wet, BREATHING IN is set at the turn of the 20th century in South Africa during the Second Boer War. Around this time, Britain decided to erect concentration camps, which saw the deaths of over 40,000. This war-torn backdrop is rarely shown to us but implied primarily through the introduction of Brand (Sven Ruygrok), a soldier who arrives at the home of Annie (Michele Burgers in a standout role) and her daughter Anna (Jamie-Lee Money). The two women are nursing a wounded general (Lionel Newton) back to health, whom Brand has come to check on.
Taking place over the course of an evening, it’s clear that there’s something strange going on amongst the women of the house. Not only does Anna appear weak and unable to move well, but Annie claims that her daughter must not fall asleep, or she’ll lose her forever. It’s unsure what their endgame is, but as the morning approaches, intentions become clear.
A single location chamber piece, BREATHING IN drifts along as if time were in slow motion. Its hushed dialogue and symbolic motifs effectively feel like subliminal messages, adding to its hypnotic energy. As an adaptation, it’s suitably cinematic, with attention given to geography and how to appropriately capture specific beats of the story (unsurprising since Jaco Bouwer was a theater director before a filmmaker).
As I am unfamiliar with the source material in addition to much of the history that inspired it, any deeper nuances within its tale likely didn’t register with me just off of a single viewing. The soft-spoken delivery and occasionally difficult-to-decipher accents also make it hard to absorb some information. But if you’re like me and have a limited knowledge of South African politics, BREATHING IN still offers an engaging enough psychological thriller that stands out with its trancelike atmosphere and satisfying conclusion. I missed Bouwer’s breakout feature Gaia in 2021, but perhaps I should finally find the time to check it out.
BREATHING IN had its world premiere at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival on October 18th, 2023.