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It's pretty obvious that foreign filmmakers see horror in a totally different light than their Western (read: American) counterparts. To them, there is more tradition and history in the world of dread than whatever makes up the current creepshow culture. Japan, for example, relies so heavily on ghosts and the spirit world that every scary movie they make seems to be about banshees croaking horrifically while their long black hair shadows their spectral face. Italy loves its blood and guts (don't we all), while Spain is still reeling from years under fascist censorship. So what does it say about France that Frederic Grousset's 2004 suspense effort Aquarium deals with a Big Brother like presence putting six ordinary citizens through some rather distasteful paces? Better yet, what does it say about the citizenry that the individuals under the sinister scrutiny resort to some very baser reactions just to survive? One hopes that it's the message the movie plans on addressing. Sadly, it stops short of making such a sentient pronouncement.
The room is painted a plain white, a table with food and drink set up in the corner. There are no visible doors and no windows. There is a vent near the ceiling, and a surveillance camera on one wall. A TV is also attached to one corner. When Vincent wakes up and sees his predicament, he panics. Along with five complete strangers, he's locked in this location with no explanation as to why. As everyone else wakes up - lawyer Georges, TV personality Alex, and corporate career gals Alice, Elise, and Marie - no connection can be made. And then, a disembodied voice announces the project's intentions. The six captives will compete in a series of "tests". Whoever fails or interferes with their completion will be removed...and executed. Between the panic and paranoia, the sextet must learn to listen, and work together. If they don't, this stay inside a social experiment Aquarium will be fatal for all involved.
The French thriller Aquarium is a lot like that classic song "One Tin Soldier". You remember, the pro-peace screed from Coven which functioned as the title track for Tom Laughlin's multi-counter-cultural ass kicker Billy Jack? For those unfamiliar, the main lyric suggests that two competing clans, one valley based, the other living on a mountain, had a very contentious relationship regarding a legendary treasure. After a horrible battle with many lives lost, the rock containing the proposed riches was finally uncovered. The twist? "Peace on Earth" was all it said. Kind of a smug, smarmy, self-congratulatory little denouement, isn't it (it really 'wowed' them back in 1970)? Aquarium's last act reveal, the moment we as an audience have been waiting for since the film first began, is a lot like that groan-inducing 'gotcha'. In this case, we've spent 70 minutes in Saw/Cube/Generic People Trapped in a Room Fright Flick mode, and we want a little payoff for our patience. Instead, we get a misguided message (something to do with corporate conglomerate speak holding us hostage) and then the movie fades away. Go ahead and cheat a friend, indeed.
For a while, this claustrophobic claptrap works. We find ourselves intrigued by the premise, driven by the personalities, and curious how it will all turn out. As the disembodied voice reads out the rules, as we learn the ropes of life inside this six person society, director Frederic Grousset tries to keep things lively. Camera angles play tricks on our perspective, and sudden shifts in the story provide a perfect counterpoint to all the Orwellian weirdness going on. But then Grousset loses sight of the significance and starts getting sloppy. Motives are marred by a need to move the narrative forward, and the missing elements we come to expect from such a recognizable set-up fail to materialize, stretching the credibility of everything we see. By the time of the eventual reveal, the moment where everything is supposed to add up and make sense, Grousset flatly refuses to deliver. We see the supposed message (to be discussed - SPOILER WARNING - in the next paragraph) and feel rather ripped off. It's as if Grousset and collaborator Jean Mach couldn't come up with a satisfying way out of the knotty narrative they created and simply punted. The result is a feeling of time wasted, or 60 minutes spent for 10 minutes of elementary let down.
For those who are curious, here is how the movie ends (SPOILER ALERT! ). It turns out that the entire project was some sort of reflection on current society as viewed through the lens of corrupt corporate ideology. Vincent, the only individual to outlast everyone in the room, learns that no matter what he does, he's doomed. The way the world is structured, conformity is preferred to adventurousness and rebellion. He eventually pays for his individualistic sins. Then, as a fictional business logo sneaks into the corner of the screen, we hear the disembodied voice repeat the rules. This time, a suburb of Paris appears as the backdrop. Voila! We are supposed to instantly see the connection - that the real world is just like the room, controlled by insurance agents, lawyers, marketers, advertisers, and other public manipulators. That they end up killing each other off (or dying by their own hand) is supposed to satisfy as an ideological commentary. Frankly, it's the bleeding obvious. It speaks to a script that started out intriguing but decided to dump anything innovative for the same old "business is bullsh*t" ideal. Had it found a way to be more creative, to make the hostage material finish up successfully, Aquarium would be a fine film. Unfortunately, it's a good beginning and middle without much of an end.
Presented in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 letterboxed image, the transfer for Aquarium is rather dull and lifeless. The color has been drained out of the picture (whether on purpose or via DVD post-production) and the lack of visual flair really shows. This is a no budget effort that looks like it owes someone money. There is a nice level of detail, and the incorporation of surveillance like material is managed well. But this is a washed out work overall, with nothing available to stimulate one's visual sense.
The sound situation is equally unexceptional. The Dolby Digital Stereo presents the French dialogue clearly enough, and the subtitles are unobtrusive and very exacting. But we expect more atmosphere from this kind of movie. The DVD delivers very little effective ambience.
As for added content, there is a Making of documentary that's rather heavy handed, a still gallery as well as a look at some Behind the Scenes photos. We are treated to the original trailer, as well as two short films by Grousset. Emergency Stop is mildly interesting, while Shit is just an extended dirty joke about taking a dump. Taken together, they indicate that this filmmaker has a long way to go before finding his voice - either as a serious artist or a genre jokester.
Critics can't stand movies like this. Nothing gets their Fourth Estate ire nice and steamy like a film that wastes its previous two thirds on a stunted, stupid ending. It makes everything that came before seem pointless. Still, there is enough intriguing material here - at least initially - an adequate approach to almost recommend the effort. Therefore, a rating of Rent It is definitely in order. It provides the most judicious parsing of opinion while keeping audience dollars safe and secure until a final, individual verdict can be reached. Considering what it attempts to do, Aquarium really should be better. Even the references to other films that it really doesn't mirror (the Saw allusion is specious at best) suggest a core concept with real potential. Yet instead of milking it, Frederic Grousset only gets it half right. It's the other percentage that's beyond problematic.
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