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Through the looking glass
A UK region 2 DVD review of AQUARIUM by Slarek
 

Three men and three women wake up in a sealed, white-walled room with no idea how they got there. A wall-mounted camera observes their every move and a disembodied voice outlines a set of rules they are required to follow. The group must function as a community and perform a series of set activities – refusal to take part, attempts to sabotage or failure to complete the activities by any of them will result in their execution and removal. The person who completes all of the tasks will, they are assured, be set free.

Almost from the moment they regain consciousness, the group are at each other's throats. Having woken before the others, young Vincent is immediately accused of orchestrating the kidnapping and imprisonment of his fellow captives. He has his own theories regarding their fate, each of which has a degree of plausibility, at least in the world created here. Initial conflict is kept at bay by middle-class lawyer Georges, who nonetheless loses his rag at his unseen captors and smashes the all-seeing camera. The group are almost immediately gassed into unconsciousness to enable the camera to be replaced. When Georges awakes, one of his fingers has been severed and left in a plastic bag beside him, a clear warning to everybody of the fate that awaits those who fail to cooperate.

Aquarium is, it has to be said, a work of uneven merit. As an example of how to turn a micro-budget to your advantage it is admirable stuff. Director Frédéric Grousset makes claustrophobic use of his minimalist setting and creates a most palpable sense of mystery and mounting fear, as his characters act out a 'Simon Says' style game that requires them to raise one arm and balance on one leg for just long enough for one of them to falter, a slip that could just cost them their life. Suggestion is most effectively used, particularly in the form of a black plastic sack deposited in the room in the later stages, the nature of whose contents we are able to gauge purely from the horrified reactions of those who dare to peek inside (that it sits in the corner so long before one of them weakens and does so is also an effective wind-up). Similarly unsettling is the use of the room's initially inactive wall-mounted TV, which springs into life long after its presence has been forgotten and at a moment when its transmission is perfectly timed to amplify a panic that has already been set in motion.

But from the opening shot the film is blighted with an overwhelming sense of déjà vu, with its set-up lifted straight from Vincenzo Natali's 1997 Cube, a film whose reality abstraction and originality Aquarium apes but doesn't come close to matching. Fortunately as things progress, Aquarium starts to part company with its predecessor, restricting the action to a single room and suggesting a sociopolitical aspect that is kept effectively bubbling under the surface until the final scenes, when it is hammered home with all the subtlety of a megaphoned sloganeer yelling directly into your ear. It's not that Grousset is telling us anything remotely profound or even new – back in 1968 The Prisoner delivered a similar social warning, but with an inventiveness that Aquarium only flirts with and later tosses asunder for a "do you get it?" approach that can't help but sour what has come before.

But if you can tolerate the borrowings and just ignore the state-the-obvious climax then there is much in the film to admire and be hooked by. The brief running time is economically used, and while we may not get that deeply involved with any of the characters, we do nonetheless empathise with their confusion and mounting fear. It's a shame that Grousset felt the need to even provide a final explanation for his metaphoric journey – one of the key strengths of Cube was that it left such things for the audience to decide for themselves, and in the process retained its unsettling enigma until the final frame.

sound and vision

A 1.78:1 letterboxed NTSC to PAL transfer whose detail is soft and whose colour is drained. Allowances have to be made given that the film was shot on DVCam, probably in non-anamorphic widescreen (there were precious few if any low end DVCam camcorders with 16:9 CCD chips, so shooting 16:9 tended to crop the picture and an anamorphic transfer would only be stretching this), and as it was shot on NTSC DV then the standards conversion is inevitable. The bleached-out whites of the walls are a casualty to the recording medium, but this actually works in the film's favour. The print is spotless, suggesting a video rather than film master, if such a beast even exists.

The stereo 2.0 soundtrack is not as crisp as you'd expect, with the dialogue in particular betraying a slight fluffiness and even distortion on louder sounds, while later in the story there are even a few pops to contend with. The background machine hum can drive your subwoofer mad if you redirect the bass through it.

extra features

Film stills gallery
5 pages of grabs from the film. Pointless.

Behind the scenes stills gallery
5 pages of the behind-the-scenes stills. Only marginally more interesting than the above.

Original Aquarium trailer (1:47)
Intriguing, but gives a lot away and should not be viewed just before the main feature.

Making of Aquarium documentary (4:06)
At just over 4 minutes in length they've got a nerve calling it a documentary, but with some nifty editing and speeded up film it covers more ground than I was expecting. The footage is silent and cut to a thumping beat and inevitably lacks substance and detail.

Short film #1: Emergency Stop (8:12)
The first of two short films by director Frédéric Grousset tells the well-worn favourite of a woman who thinks she's being terrorised by a killer who turns out to be... well, I wouldn't want to spoil the surprise. Has the wobbly narrative logic and aural aggression of a student film, with a music score that screams like a madman instead of augmenting the story.

Short Film #2: Shit (5:48)
The student connection continues in this cinematic exercise in one-gag base humour, as a young man (Julien Masdoua, who plays Vincent in Aquarium) thunders into a toilet cubicle for the noisiest crap of his life and then discovers there's no toilet paper. Visually shouty in a way that suggests Grousset likes his MTV, this is live action played as a cartoon.

summary

What more can I add? Turn a blind eye to the weakness and Aquarium is a rather smart little micro-budget tension-builder that would score serious points for originality were it not walking in someone else's well respected movie footsteps. As a cinematic calling card it does the job, though, and there is the sense that with the right material Grousset could yet make his mark on the indie movie scene.

Aquarium

France 2004
66 mins
director
Frédéric Grousset
starring
Karen Bruere
Abel Divol
Capucine Mandeau
Julien Masdoua
Michel Robin
Sophie Talon

DVD details
region 2
video
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 2.0 stereo
languages
French
subtitles
English
extras
Stills
Trailer
Making-of featurette
Short films
distributor
Redemption
release date
14 April 2008
review posted
17 April 2008

See all of Slarek's reviews