Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"Oxygen is a breath of fresh air."

Why go to see a film about life-threatening illness? Weepies on this theme keep on being made and keep drawing in audiences. Perhaps they're a convenient way to confront issues around mortality with attractive young actors. For those of us who live with such illnesses they are usually exercises in frustration, full of inaccuracies and suffocatingly sentimental. Fortunately, Oxygen is something different.

Stef Aerts plays Tom, who has grown up with cystic fibrosis and whose brother Lucas (Maarten Mertens) is at a more advanced stage with the same disease. Life is a succession of hospital visits. Tom has long since lost patience with the patient role; he's as much an expert in his illness as any of the doctors and can confidently run through the necessary protocol each time something goes wrong. But no amount of knowledge will spare him from its progression. In the circumstances, there doesn't seem much point in study, hard work, or even relationships.

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Four significant people come and gon in Tom's life. There's Xavier (Wouter Hendrickx), a fellow sufferer determined to live life to the full yet expecting the worst. There's Anneleen (Marie Vinck, Aerts' real life partner), who doesn't want her disease to get in the way of pregnancy and a full life. There's Jimmy (Rik Verheye), Tom's healthy, drug dealer best friend who might be in love with him. And there's Eline (Anemone Valcke), a young woman in an isolation room with whom Tom conducts a wary romance. Each of them has a profound effect on how Tom sees himself and the meaning of his existence. Importantly, they are all in his peer group; he's engaging with life the way all young people do, not depending on his desperate, doting parents.

Co-written by Hans Van Nuffel, who has cystic fibrosis himself, this is a film about illness from the point of view of someone who really understands it. There's cynicism and dark humour among both patients and doctors, and machismo surrounding who is on the strongest drugs or coping with the lowest lung capacity. There's boredom with endless hospital routines and an urgent lust for life that's confounded by a complete lack of realistic guidelines or role models for this type of existence. There's sex in hospital rooms and, well conveyed, the ridiculous business of people trying to act like normal human beings in an artificial environment.

Oxygen is a breath of fresh air. It's blackly funny, with rounded, appealing characters and a script that balances its sympathies well. For those who live in the same world it will come as a considerable relief. For others it's a learning experience, and a very enjoyable one.

Reviewed on: 09 Feb 2012
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Oxygen packshot
Two young men who share an incurable illness face death together and try to find something precious in life.

Director: Hans Van Nuffel

Writer: Jean-Claude Van Rijckeghem, Hans Van Nuffel

Starring: Gijs Scholten van Aschat, Marie Vinck, Kris Cuppens, Wouter Hendrickx, Anemone Valcke

Year: 2010

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: Belgium, Netherlands


Glasgow 2012

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