JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Oxygen (Director: Hans Van Nuffel) - January 12, 2011
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Oxygen

Adem

3.5 3.5
98 min.

Reviewed at the 2011 Palm Springs International Film Festival
Permanently dying to breathe

In general, films about serious health issues, notably HIV/AIDS are presented as documentaries (cross-reference below). First-person interviews often make the various points (symptoms, treatment, prevention) with more veracity than scripted actors.

The challenge, then, for director/co-writer (along with Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem) Hans Van Nuffel is to fictionalize the situations but remain true to the disease under the microscope. In this case it’s cystic fibrosis: the hereditary lung-destroying malady where survival into adulthood is considered to be an achievement.

The parts that work best in this story of two young men whose identical “chemistry” puts them in competition for a lung transplant that can add years to what—by that stage it’s the only option for improvement—is bronchial hell on Earth, are the scenes between the stricken. The black humour of the terminally ill is one of their few “joys” in lives that are dependent on unending pills and a constant oxygen feed. Like blood to vampires (a notion that is worked in tellingly) the cylindrical lungs must be suckled voraciously or life ends.

Not surprisingly, the weak points surface whenever the fiction tries working overtime to either support the overarching drama (will the men survive?) or provide distractions from the grim medical realities. Worst offender is the nonexistent security in the pivotal hospital where the patients gradually move along the continuum of care until the point of no return (occasional check-ups; monthly visits, week-long stays to run ever-more-complicated tests, then permanent admittance). Whether assaulting interns, violating protocols in quarantine rooms, racing pallet trucks in the bowels or stealing drugs from the wide-open medication warehouse, the false notes drown out the compelling truth at the narrative’s heart.

Anyone who has seen the ravages of this deadly disease on their contemporaries (friends or family) will shudder again at the cruel disintegration of those who—but for the hugely bad luck of the gene pool—are doomed to fight for every breath just as soon as they’ve drawn their first.

Playing Tom, Stef Aerts does a remarkable job, facing his devastating prognosis with compelling credibility. “You don’t know how it feels,”—spoken to his mom as he explains a difficult, courageous decision—resonates entirely. Who amongst us could know, once removed?

Wouter Hendrickx brings somewhat older, a tad wiser Xavier to believable life and near-death. His lost lung (from a too-quick surfacing during an underwater photo shoot) doesn’t prevent him from thinking large and training for a triathlon, but his on-again, off-again, on-without-fear-of-passing-statistical-death-to-a-newborn relationship begins in the shallows (open-door sex in the wards) before strengthening in the coda.

That love interest is Anneleen—Marie Vinck who turns in a bravura performance as an afflicted woman who decides not to miss anything even if she, like her friends, “will die before our parents.”

Tom’s emerging girlfriend, Eline (Anemone Valckle lights up the screen with her inventions of necessity)—trapped in isolation with a rare pneumonia strain—helps round out Tom’s character in her first scenes only to be pulled back for an encore five years later that makes little sense.

Another puzzle is Jimmy (Rik Verheye), Tom’s best pal. The one-man hell raiser is loyal to a fault (he’d kill for his constant companion) but is angry and reckless (without a cause, although there never has been a woman in his life …), knowing that he’d be more believable as a CF patient than a lawless no good. His friendship with Tom seems out of tune with the other aspects of the struggling man’s character. Having known another Jimmy with the disease who played hard and fast with the few years he had before succumbing to his pre-ordained fate—no doubt—tempers this opinion.

Nuffel has certainly succeeded in bringing cystic fibrosis into the public arena—out from the near-overwhelming shadow of cancer and AIDS. A viewing is highly recommended: come for better understanding of these gasping lives and smile through the trumped-up stories that allow the message to, nonetheless, be brought home. JWR

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