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Acting Up: Mélanie Laurent

Gregg Rosenzweig

Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming, and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.

 

The Snapshot:

Mélanie Laurent plays a woman trapped in a cryogenic pod without a clue as to how — or why — she got there in the sci-fi film thriller Oxygen. (Premiered on Netflix May 12th.)

 

The Performance:

Normally, when you discuss standout performances, the character in question usually has a chance to stand at least once during the film in question. Not the case with Oxygen — given Elizabeth Hansen’s predicament involves laying almost exclusively in the supine position.

From the moment Hansen (Mélanie Laurent) wakes up in a futuristic cryogenic chamber (connected to needles and an abdominal tube), she must emerge from her literal and figurative cocoon as a desperate woman piecing together how she got there. With only 33 minutes of oxygen remaining before asphyxiation kicks in, Laurent plays a woman up against the clock, interacting almost exclusively with MILO, the soulful AI voice that also inhabits the pod —à la HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey yet with more tech savviness when it comes to keywords.

For an actor, this is a challenging performance. With so much shot in tight confines and medium to extreme close-ups by gifted French director Alexandre Aja (based on a strong Twilight Zone-y script by Christie LeBlanc), you’d think a 100-minute movie would suffer due to such physical, emotional, and aesthetic constraints. But not so — thanks to Laurent’s cinematic ability to navigate her inevitable fate given her rapidly dwindling options. That is, as her brain fog clears up, her character’s fight to stay alive makes you wonder how you’d handle such a predicament.

In the vein of other claustrophobic, mostly single-location films like 2010’s Buried (Ryan Reynolds was trapped in a coffin) and 127 Hours (with James Franco stuck between a rock and a hard place, like life for him now), Oxygen airs out a lot to think about in terms of science, technology, and existential crises. But it’s never boring, courtesy of Laurent’s ability to communicate the right amount of angst in her plight and fight for survival. Carrying a movie while relying purely on facial expressions and histrionics is no easy task — but Laurent succeeds to an impressive degree. Her journey is our journey, with each new revelation providing a twist.

And, let’s be honest, being trapped in a pod hooked to wires is probably the most unglamorous position you can put an actor in without caking on makeup or invoking the dreaded fat suit.

But with Aja’s direction, Laurent thrives in the role — and her performance is a beautiful thing.

 

The Career:

To American audiences, the Paris-born Laurent might not be a face that is immediately recognizable due to her limited work in American films. But she’s been quite busy since launching her career as a 16-year-old in Gérard Depardieu’s The Bridge (1999).

This moment set in motion an accomplished career for the 38-year-old actor, who’s made the most of her break by starring in French films that have won critical acclaim.

By continuing to do good work in films like Don’t Worry, I’m Fine (2006), where she won a Lumière Award for “Most Promising Young Actress” and nomination for “Best Actress” in Room of Death (2007), Laurent would eventually catch the eye of Quentin Tarantino, who would immortalize her in film history by casting her as Shosanna Dreyfus, the projectionist with plan to kill Nazis in Inglourious Basterds (2009). It’s a role Laurent was drawn to as someone of Jewish descent — as her grandfather was reportedly deported from Poland during the Nazi occupation.

Not to mention, the idea of working with Tarantino, who was seriously beloved by the French at the time, was highly intriguing.

The memorable role launched a new era for Laurent, who would go on to star in a series of American films such as Beginners (2010), Now You See Me (2013) and the Angelina Jolie film By the Sea (2015). Then there was also Operation Finale (2018), directed by Chris Weitz, where

Laurent’s interest in chasing Nazis picked up where she left off with Basterds, as the film portrays the chase of Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust.

In the realm of expanding her artistic skill set, Laurent has recently taken to writing/directing/starring in her own films and is currently in post-production on the film, Le bal des folles (2021), about a woman who is unfairly institutionalized at a hospital — and manages to escape.

 

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