Mélanie Laurent in Oxygen (2021)
Liz (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a cryogenic chamber. She’s not sure who she is, or where she is, or how long she’s been dormant, but time is of the essence. Oxygen is running out. Her source of reliable communication is the voice of M.I.L.O (Mathieu Amalric), an artificial intelligence operator programmed as her medical liaison. While uncertain of identity and place, Liz has knowledge of the chamber. She knows more or less what questions to ask, each one bringing up twists and turns about her life. In order to escape, Liz must team up with the rigid M.I.L.O and find a way to regain her memories as her oxygen levels dwindle. The idea of escape interestingly manifests in different ways as the film progresses. It’s not only this chamber keeping her confined, but also the illusions within it, causing her to question what is real and what is conceptual. The high-tech visuals she sees above her are a filter for something far more infinite. Directed by Alexandre Aja and written by Christie LeBlanc, Oxygen is a tense claustrophobic thriller that explores the manipulation of truth and time. The story becomes increasingly like a philosophical drama that ponders the meaning of identity and existence. Leading the journey is an incredible performance by Mélanie Laurent, who conveys a rollercoaster of emotions from one minute to the next.
The winning combination of Laurent’s work and a screenplay of interesting ideas to ruminate on makes Oxygen a mostly compelling experience. The film benefits immensely from not being ten steps ahead of its protagonist. Known technically as “bioform patient Omicron 267,” Liz’s true identity is revealed as she’s discovering it. The film teases clues along the way through frequent use of flashbacks. A peek inside Liz’s fragmented memories introduces her said-to-be husband Léo (Malik Zidi). Hazy scenes of him playing the piano at their home, badly injured on a stretcher in a hospital, and alongside her as she works in a lab are the results of Liz’s fogging memory. Her confinement in the chamber is also juxtaposed with rats in a maze, and rats being experimented on in a lab. These visions become so visceral that Liz is convinced there are rats in the chamber with her. Her reality is blurred, and there are some who want to keep it that way. M.I.L.O isn’t the only source of communication at Liz’s fingertips. Scrambling through limited options as her oxygen levels continue to drop, she instructs M.I.L.O to connect her with a police station. What begins as an ordinary call unravels with Captain Moreau (Eric Herson-Macarel), plus possibly others listening in, gaslighting Liz into thinking that her mind is playing tricks on her, and that Léo doesn’t exist.
Oxygen resonates as a personal tale of survival above all. When the general panic and risk of talking to the wrong person sets in, Liz tunes out the noise. She focuses inward and tries to piece together reality from figments of her imagination. Apart from the dreamy flashbacks and some images/videos conjured by M.I.L.O, there is no depiction of a world outside of this chamber. Alexandre Aja makes a clever choice to stay with Liz in one location, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere where any indication of impending danger is felt so strongly. Whether it’s the sound of a sudden warning signal or a crucial request denied in M.I.L.O’s operatic voice, it’s easy to feel the desperation and severe uncertainty that these moments create. The time-pressured environment, coupled with great sound design and visuals, makes for intense moments on-screen where Liz is seconds away from death. The solid voice acting also helps bring this pressurized environment to life. The decision to set most of the story inside this chamber works in a myriad of ways, the most interesting being that the chamber itself is filtered. The digitally conjured image Liz faces is put in place so as not to reveal what’s on the outside of this sleep pod. She’s fighting for her life in a manipulated setting, worsened by the ongoing string of calls with Captain Moreau. Only until the truth starts to come out, via a phone call with a mysterious woman, does Liz discover her real surroundings. At its core, Oxygen engages in the resilience of inner strength and escaping the trappings that can manifest in one’s mind.
Liz carries the emotional resonance of the story, and given how much of this scenario rests on one character, a lot of responsibility falls onto the central performance to convey her journey. Mélanie Laurent goes on a rollercoaster of emotions as she races against time for a chance at survival. In a stellar collaboration with Alexandre Aja, Laurent makes a minimal setting feel incredibly cinematic. All the simultaneous fear, confusion, desperation, elation, and determination are conveyed in equal measure. As well, she excels at the physicality of this character and raises the stakes, particularly with her survival instincts in the second half of the film. Even when the story becomes a little too caught up in twisting and turning, Laurent brings a compelling truthfulness to the role of Liz. The idea that she has all the answers she needs inside of her, she just needs to figure out how to regain her memory, is an interesting dynamic to play. Oxygen works best when under the spell of piecing together a mysterious identity. Where the film loses steam is the final act. The story leans into predictability and falls into the trap of revealing too much in one breath, which undercuts the genuinely interesting ideas at play.
Pondering the meaning of identity and existence brings a universality to Oxygen. The story follows a high-concept scenario, but for all the moments of dramatic tension, the most resonating part of this film is an incredibly quiet one. It’s a pensive reflection on the life Liz knows by heart, and the loss she feels from being on the outside looking in. What the film doesn’t lose is Mélanie Laurent’s all-consuming commitment to her character and setting. Oxygen makes space for Liz’s internal compass to lead this journey and find new ways to define herself in an environment where her identity is under wraps. While the story is centered in a claustrophobic framework, Oxygen creates a little world of possibilities that sees Liz defy the odds and control the narrative.