CHENNAI: Director Alexandre Aja returns to French-language cinema with “Oxygen,” made during the height of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic last year.
Now streaming on Netflix, it has a not-to-be-missed message. There is a strong subtext about how human manipulations against nature could make Earth unlivable and force the need to seek other places in the galaxy to inhabit.
After grand English films such as “The Hills Have Eyes,” and “Maniac,” the director chooses a virtual coffin-like chamber to shoot his latest flick, a thriller, with an actress as brilliant as Melanie Laurent (Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds”), who plays Elizabeth Hansen, trapped with oxygen levels running perilously low.
Scripted by first timer Christie LeBlanc, the plotline adds to the eeriness of the 101-minute runtime. It unfolds inside a cryogenic chamber, slightly larger than a coffin. Waking up from hyper-sleep, after what seems like a malfunction, Hansen tries to wriggle out of the unit.
But with her body plugged to wires, beeping buttons, and a belt holding her firmly down, she is a nervous wreck when help arrives – or apparently so – in the form of artificial intelligence called M.I.L.O. (Mathieu Amalric). We only hear his voice, his terse, unfeeling replies.
Hansen’s state resembles what many people may have experienced during the long COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, a distressing sense of claustrophobia worsened by little or no social interaction.
A single character and an unbelievably confined set could not have been easy to handle. But Laurent carries it with magnificent ease, conveying deep anguish contrasted, now and then, by a faint ray of hope.
She does not remember who she is or how she got in there in the first place and her highly emotive expressions draw viewers into her terrible predicament, willing her to find a way out.
The Netflix feature was to have had Anne Hathaway and then Noomi Rapace with Franck Khalfoun in the director’s chair before he was replaced by Aja, who roped in Laurent for his first French work in two decades.
Apart from Laurent’s excellence, “Oxygen” had an imaginative crew that was able to keep adrenal levels high with all the elements of a mysterious science-fiction thriller playing out.
Even an hour in, the suspense never flags as more is learned about Hansen, and while the short diversions the movie makes outside the box may seem like a relief, there is a want to get quickly back into the cryogenic chamber.
Credit must also go to the highly dynamic director of photography, Maxime Alexandre, who tries out an endless number of mesmerizing angles. French musician Robin Coudert’s score, and the stylishly pulsating editing by Stephane Roche, add to the dark atmospheric mood.