Netflix’s Oxygen (Oxygène), a French-language thriller set inside a tiny cryogenic pod, went through a handful of iterations before landing as an eerily timely take on confinement. The film, based on Christie LeBlanc’s 2016 Black List script, was originally slated to be shot in English and with Anne Hathaway attached to star. It was later transformed into a project led by Noomi Rapace with Franck Khalfoun directing and Alexandre Aja producing. Ultimately, the pandemic scuppered plans for that version and Aja took over helming duties with Mélanie Laurent in the role of Liz, a doctor who wakes up amid a labyrinth of wires and tubes in an extremely confined space and with no idea where she is, or why. The contained race for survival film, part of Netflix’s push to local-language productions, was shot last summer — just after the first Covid lockdown lifted in France — and releases globally today.
Aja first read the script during shooting on Paramount’s Crawl and says he “devoured” it as elements reminded him of Buried, “and then all these existential emotional twists really bowled me over.” As he returned to Paris for Covid confinement, Oxygen “became a mirror of what we were living, even though it had been written a long time before.”
Shifting the project to French, says Aja, was “an opportunity to push the script to a sort of sci-fi that was even more mature and to explore the character’s humanity.” Having wanted to work with Laurent for some time, Aja tells me it was clear that she possessed the necessary range of emotions and ”a credibility which also brings a real force to the film.”
Laurent was “very excited” when her agent informed her he’d received the latest Aja project, but admits to having been “really scared to read something of pure horror that was going to keep me from sleeping.” When she learned Oxygen wasn’t similar to Aja’s previous work in the genre, and was rather more claustrophobic, she was reassured and “devoured it too.” She adds, “It’s interesting because it’s not often that we experience something at the same time between a director and an actress. This was a script that Alexandre had read a long time before and had the time to fantasize about. I had the same feeling of falling completely in love with the character who is beautiful, strong, moving and human. We were very moved by her and we had an almost blissful smile like when we talk about someone we love. We wanted to protect her and make her as strong and normal and weak and human as possible.”
Shooting inside a box for five weeks required physical as well as mental training. Laurent ran for about a month prior to filming, “taking in air as if, naively, I could stock up on oxygen in advance,” she laughs. She also did a lot of planks — the contortions Liz has to go through to access the things around her “was all in the abs.”
Having just come out of lockdown, was it difficult to be in such closed quarters on set? Laurent says it was the contrary. “We were so happy… One of the first questions (during lockdown) was, ‘Are we going to make movies again?’ Then, ‘How are we going to make movies again? Are we going to be able to do it right away?’… We came out with such a desire to work and we were lucky to be able to work again on this film — to find a team… We are very French, but we had a very American mindset both of us and so it was wonderful to go confront that.”
For Aja, there was “a sense of privilege.” He says he felt the months of confinement “had created a creative frustration and there was this accumulation of energy that wanted to be liberated. The film benefited from that overall. There was this surrealist thing that we were ‘Covid friendly’ and there was the advantage of not having big scenes with extras, not a lot of sets. The story allowed us to mask actors which helped. It was easier to convince Netflix to go fast and get to work immediately.”
The well-reviewed Oxygen debuts globally on Netflix today, and one week from now, movie theaters will reopen and outdoor dining will be allowed in France for the first time in nearly seven months. Aja and Laurent are planning to spend the day in similar fashion: A visit to a café, a trip to the cinema and a drink on a terrace to cap off the experience.
Oxygen is produced by Vincent Maraval, Brahim Chioua and Noëmie Devide for Getaway Films. Aja also acts as producer alongside Gregory Levasseur.