Directed By Alexandre Aja
Starring – Melanie Laurent, Malik Zidi, Laura Boujenah
The Plot – A woman (Laurent) wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there. As she’s running out of oxygen, she must rebuild her memory to find a way out of her claustrophobic nightmare.
The film is rated TV-MA for mild violence and moderately frightening sequences
– Commanding hand. Throughout a career of diverse, first-hand account stories meant to immerse audiences in a particular situation or emotional conflict, Aja has preserved himself as one of the best in anxiety driven cinema working today, and in “Oxygen” has pieced together one of his very best and most complete experiences across a filmography stretching over twenty years. Part of it is certainly the evidential ratcheting of tension, combining an emphasis for vulnerability, isolation, and claustrophobia for the protagonist that audiences can easily interpret and immerse themselves in, as well as making the most ambition out of his one stage setting that allows the story to transcend the intentionally derivative nature of its condensed gimmick. But for my money, it’s the constant pulse of mentality that resides over his character throughout, giving us a vividly illustrated frame of mind that doesn’t spell matters out too obviously with heavy-handed dialogue or spoon-fed sequencing that visually spells things out without the benefit of psychological nuance providing the story depth. It allows Aja the kind of creativity in honing the artistic side of his inspiration over the blood-splattered ferocity of which he has made a safety net out of, cementing “Oxygen” as the breath of fresh air needed to highlight the kind of control he has over a story.
– Expansive cinematography. The visual movements of the camera that Maxime Alexandre supplants to this personally intimate story are not only ones that challenge what is possible for this physical frame of conflict, but also ones that with the story in tow unravel in ways that compliment the unveiling of information that we patiently receive along the way. When the film begins, we are treated to mostly two perspectives, one of Liz’s facial registry, and one of the artificial intelligence that she interacts with in her awakening. However, it’s the second act that breathes creativity, stitching together a series of manipulated long takes in the form of patterns that revolve around the chamber, visually conveying an infinite feeling to Liz’s internal and externale struggle that coherently plays into the movie’s engaging anxiety. In addition, the surprising amount of wide angle framing during the film’s third act was most accommodating to the direction within the story’s conflict, visually constructing a scheme for isolation that conveys so much substance and meaning within a 4×7 box that shouldn’t be this opportunistic within the movie’s presentation.
– Sharp editing. Being that Liz can’t piece together a majority of her life before her awakening, there’s a responsibility within the film’s visual storytelling to fill the gap, all the while incorporating them in a manner that spontaneously enriches their believability within the frame of mind from the character they spring from. This comes to fruition a few times during the film, particularly in how they’re presented in a way that focuses on a cryptic event in her life without the kind of dialogue and context needed to flourish its importance. It’s deposited and glossed over with the kind of speed and dwindling focus for details that are often initially dismissed as forgettable, but within the context of the film provide bigger emphasis in meaning when you understand how each of them piece together. It offers a completely faithful experience to Liz’s dreaded disposition that allows us to interpret and experience matters from her emerging memory in the same vein that she’s doing, articulating amnesia with the abstract emphasis that isn’t convenient nor dependable for the sake of the audience experiencing life through Liz’s eyes.
– Elemental production. Without question, the partner to Aja’s influential hands are the measures within the film’s presentation that not only breed believability in the context of the situation, but also produce some stylistically sleek examples of technology that better obscure a time and place for the movie’s mystery. In that regard, the design of the chamber, with all of its neon lighting and visual digitalization offers a futuristic enveloping that radiantly captures and maintains the attention of the audience, and when paired with the scintillating musical works from Robin Coudert’s entrancing score, gives us a cohesive aesthetic pulse that is fitting and used unobtrusively in a way that further plays to the ambiguity of the situation.
– Satisfying twists. To be specific, there are three of them throughout the film, and with each passing answer we obviously learn more about the situation, but beyond that it further distorts reality in a way that brings out the science fiction elements of the story’s material. Not only was I completely surprised by what materialized in the many climaxes of the film’s deliveries, but each landed with the kind of asserted climatic build necessary to reshape the resonating drama within its discovery, taking this once claustrophobic one-character, one-stage setting and fleshing it out in a way that feels universal once you understand the bigger picture. It made for one of the more alluring experiences in cinema that I have felt in quite some time, if even just for how it takes a conventionally stereotypical trapped storyline, and navigates it with some sociological stimulation to break repetition, giving us an experience that is surprisingly timely to its engagingly nourishing narrative.
– French phenom. Melanie Laurent gives a riveting performance that is emotionally eclectic, and full of resonating vulnerability that constantly maintained my attention. For my money, it’s the nuances to the character and the situation that paid off immensely for my experience, attaining a consistency for authenticity that featured Laurent giving lines of dialogue with increased bated breath as the film persisted. In addition, her deliveries register with a brand of emotional trepidation that bottles no shortage of fear, sadness, and especially anger along the way, intensifying in a race against the clock that quite literally hangs over her head through the entirety of the film’s 95 minute run time. Aside from Melanie, there’s also strong vocal turns from Eric Herson-Macarel and Laura Boujenah who each supplant a unique dynamic to Laurent’s Liz that are made all the more compelling with the way their meanings shift throughout the film, playing into the state of mind that constantly whispers whom we should and shouldn’t be trusting in a film like this.
– Technical snafu’s. It’s expected that a foreign film, in this case French, would require English audio deposits in its promotion for American audiences, but my problem is in the sloppy execution of which, that occasionally came off unintentionally comical in the way they’re rendered. The first problem is with the mouthing of the words, which don’t even remotely line up in-sync for a majority of the movie. This often jarred my experience, and broke my concentration for sequences of pivotal exposition that require the audience to hang on to the meaning behind every word. Secondly, they’re mixed and edited with the kind of volume that periodically echoes, and feels a couple of notches too loud for the energy conveyed visually by Laurent in frame. While not something that weighed heavily on my final grade, it does serve as the only negative that is consistently present throughout the entirety of the film, making for a problem too obvious and apparent to look the other way on.
– Strained logic. Where do I begin with this one? There were several instances during the film where reality got the better of me, and I couldn’t suspend disbelief for the ridiculous matters of physics or personal gravity materializing before my very eyes. One involves a character’s mother being alive despite her daughter being revealed as in her 90’s. Then there are two involving the convenience of phone calls, which one would think the captor would’ve disabled in the event that the girl contained would possibly wake up. The other involving even the lack of possibility that a phone call could even take place with where the story resides is most ridiculous. There are definitely many others, but explaining them without spoilers would be a disservice to the lack of information that I feel audiences should have going into the film, so I will halt my critiques on this particular section.
– Third act blunders. It’s not that I wasn’t satisfied with the resolution of the film, just that the execution during the film’s climax dissolved a majority of the tension earned throughout the first two acts, which were near perfect in their storytelling. Part of the problem stems from the timing of the last big reveal, materializing with about twenty minutes left in the run time. This is the point when the film could’ve easily ended, sending audiences home with the open ended dagger of ambiguity that I feel would’ve worked wonders for the somber surroundings that the reveals entail, but instead it chooses to linger a little bit longer, taking far too much time on one particular sequence, when the rest of the film works almost completely cohesively in real time. The other part is that most of the film relies heavily on the mysteries of the who, the why, and the where, that it builds very little outside of the mysteries that is remotely as compelling, leaving us with a flat tire to the finish that eventually gets there, just not as quick as needed.
My Grade: 7/10 or B-