A twisted love story told through 10 mock musicvids, loopy Russian drama-cum-musical “Oxygen” reps a kind of cinematic concept album. Unfortunately, like so many such albums of yore, the pic’s strong kickoff gives way to pretension and numbing repetition that grows dreary by track seven. Although its ambition is admirable, to offshore eyes, Russian helmer Ivan Vyrypaev’s sophomore follow-up reps a disappointment after his nutso (in a good way)debut, “Euphoria.” The jury at the recent Sochi fest clearly begged to differ with that opinion, and garlanded “Oxygen” with prizes, which may augur niche success domestically and further fest airings.
Based on a legit work Vyrypaev created in 2005 that was performed in some 20 countries, “Oxygen” essentially is composed of 10 songs — almost raps, with musical accompaniment — spoken here by two thesps, Russian newcomer Alexei Filimonov and better-known Polish starlet Karolina Gruszka (who had a minor part in David Lynch’s “Inland Empire”). Seemingly playing themselves as they record their spiels (some are monologues, some utilize both players) in a studio, Filimonov and Gruszka narrate the acted-out ballad of Sasha and Sasha, a boy-meets-girl love story involving murder, international travel, and nothing less than “the essence of things.”
The boy Sasha (Filimonov), from the provincial town of Serpukhov, is first seen dancing maniacally, having killed his wife with a spade so he can be with the other Sasha, a flame-haired femme sophisticate from Moscow, played by Gruszka in a wig. Thereafter, each of the tracks — styled to look pop musicvids complete with their own title, artist and composer credits — jump around the core story nonchronologically, showing how the two met, the repercussions of their actions and so forth.
However, the romance, which the narrators themselves admit is rather banal, is much less the point of the pic than the fact that it offers Vyrypaev’s screenplay a springboard for contemplation on a variety of topics, from religious intolerance (particularly between Arabs and Jews) and how alcoholism has ruined Russia, to the biological and symbolic importance of oxygen — all told in a unending gush of sometimes quasi-biblical, sometimes cuss/slang verbiage, much of it tricky to follow even with subtitles.
Meanwhile, the screen is cluttered with all manner of optical tricks, including split-screen, animation and in-camera and post-production effects, to form a kind of visual correlative to the soundtrack’s rapturous spoken ramblings. The effect is like that of a Peter Greenaway movie as made by drug-crazed Orthodox Russian monks who’ve watched too much MTV. Not that that’s not fun to watch, at least for the first half-hour or so, but auds might start to suspect there’s less here than meets the eye and ear, if it were possible to slow the sensory assault down to parse it properly.
Music by composers Aidar Gainullin, Andrei Samsonov, Sergei Efprmenko, Vitaly Lapin, Oleg Kostrov and Alexander Lushin offers a melange of hip-hop beats, world music samples and traditionally Russian instrumentation that’s effective at least for a time.
Credits reveal locations used include Rome, London, Damascus, Paris and Hong Kong as well as Moscow, which hopefully means the filmmakers had fun making the pic, even if auds have less fun watching it.