Cinema is a temporal art form. It gives us access to time, and that time opens us up to entire worlds, sometimes worlds spanning just a few minutes, other times worlds that span for hours, worlds that we wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. To experience time in such a way, to unfold with time, full of everything that that time imparts within us, that’s one of the beauties of Cinema. Cinema grabs hold of time and collapses its paradoxical dual-pull on our lives, sculpting a present out of an endless stream of past and future. To recall, to remember, that’s the weight of time always felt, an eternity of moments on the precipice of memory, waiting, waiting to become again.
For Plato, this process gives us access to the Forms, the form of the Good, of Truth, of Beauty, to Being as it is. To imagine, that’s time yet to unfold; time that wants to unfold into what is, into becoming. What’s lost, what’s felt, what will be again, what is: those are Cinema’s expressions of time. To recall something forgotten, a name, a love, a life, something yet to unfold again in remembering, that’s Beauty, that’s a necessity.
In the new French Netflix movie, ‘Oxygen’, directed by Alexandre Aja, the director of horror-suspense films like ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, ‘Piranha 3D’, and ‘Crawl’, the act of remembering becomes a necessity, becomes a matter of life or death, and time is in limited supply, as an amnesiac woman, played by France’s own Melanie Laurent, most notably from the Quentin Tarantino film ‘Inglourious Basterds’, wakes up in a strange cryogenic capsule with an oxygen supply that’s running out: she must remember who she is and how she got there before time runs out if she has any chance, any hope of surviving this claustrophobic nightmare, something out of ‘Kill Bill’ or the Ryan Reynolds film, ‘Buried’; the only question is: does she have enough time? As the first image of the film so adeptly articulates: we might just all be rats caught up in the maze of time, nowhere to go.
‘Oxygen’ – The Suspense Is Killing Me!
The second image of the film: the woman gasps to life, body covered head to toe in a life-preserving membrane, forming a sort of cocoon around her body; the light of the chamber bleeds red against this form, almost inhuman, an image that could be out of any horror film. As the woman sheds, or rather, rips through this placental layer, however, the real horror begins: the horror of breathing the very breaths that’ll maybe lead to your death, of knowing you’re breathing the breaths that’ll potentially kill you, and the film does make you aware of your own breathing as a viewer: how could it not?
Though we might not be in such a precarious position as the amnesiac, the same is true of our lives, and of life in general, depending on how you look at it: the same breaths that give us life also take life away. These sorts of haptic images give the film its body as a thriller, a genre that only thrills when you’re invested in being thrilled, and aren’t most people invested in breathing? That’s a rhetorical question, of course, but this film, or the narrative’s scenario, is a nightmare for most people (claustrophobes I’m looking at you) and plays out like a nightmare, but it’s real, at least for the amnesiac, or is it?
Images themselves might be the only way of determining what’s real and what’s not, what’s going on and what’s not, who you are and who you’re not, the tool to unlock those lost memories, a way of opening up time so that we can remember those things that need to be remembered, and the amnesiac uses images in this way, having the capsule’s AI interface, voiced by a soothing Mathieu Amalric, scan the web in search of an identity as much as to search for help; but, even then, images can still be deceiving, revealing truths as much as distorting them. Maybe that’s why film has such an affinity with the age-old melodramatic device, amnesia?
Cinema opens us up to time in its images, but time’s still a fickle beast and has a way of swallowing things up, memories and images, in its vast, black sea, its whale of a mouth. This push and pull of time and image, of time and memory, keeps things exciting though, as they need be in a film like this; the entire film takes place in a single setting; single space settings can run out of room to breathe; but not here. Despite being set in a single space, there are enough narrative twists and turns for the film to become something, for me anyway, unexpected.
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Until We Meet Again… Again.
If I’ve been vague, it’s deliberately so. For most movies, it’s good to go in not knowing too much about the film, letting the film surprise you as you watch it for the first time, especially now that movie trailers often show too much movie, but I feel like that’s particularly true of this film: watch it knowing as little as possible. Maybe, in that way, you can have a reflexive experience? Feel what Melanie Laurent’s character feels. On the subject of Melanie Laurent though, I can confess that there couldn’t be a movie without her; she carries the film as she must carry the film: who else is there to do it?
Though her performance at times in the film tests the nerves, I mean, can you blame her? I think anybody would react a little erratically if they found themselves in that situation? But as she starts to remember her life or what she believed was her life, as she starts to feel like she’s losing herself in that remembering (another paradox of memory I suppose?), Laurent gives the performance an emotional resonance, the necessary resonance, reframing what would otherwise be total hysterics, making you care for this woman and her situation. You want her to remember, to survive, and, maybe more than that, to make something out of remembering.
Because the film is also a kind of love story in a way. What are our identities if not what we love, who we love? In trying to remember who we are, in realizing who we aren’t, does that love remain the same? Does it return back to us? To recall something lost so that it can be again, that’s love. Cling to life for life itself? There’s always something more, some other reason to be, so, as much as this movie is a thriller, it’s also something more; that’s what separates it from a film like ‘Buried’, where survival is for survival’s sake.
Sometimes this process is painful; there can be a lot of pain in memories; the movie expresses this literally; but it’s ultimately what drives us to save ourselves: fighting for the people we love, fighting for a future with that loved one, fighting for a chance to get to know the person we thought we loved. There’s an entire life waiting just beyond the walls of the cryogenic chamber, but will that love be enough to reach it? To break through?
Memory, O, Memory Come Back to Me!
‘Oxygen’ is a film that could very easily have floundered, run out of room to breathe, but it finds its space, the time to do what it needs to do: breathe, remember. What could be more simple? The film doesn’t change Cinema as such, but it’s an important watch precisely because it does remind us to do the little things, little things that can make all the difference in our lives and maybe change the course of time itself, or at least the time we have left. So, take the time to breathe and think back on that thing, that memory that wants to be again because you have all the time in the world. It’s not like you’re trapped in a cryogenic chamber or anything, at least I hope not.
Actors: Melanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi
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