Maelström (2000)


(director/writer: Denis Villeneuve; cinematographer: André Turpin; editor: Richard Comeau; music: Pierre Desrochers; cast: Marie-Josée Croze (Bibi Champagne), Jean-Nicolas Verreault (Evian), Stephanie Morgenstern (Claire Gunderson), Pierre Lebeau (voice of the fish), Bobby Beshro (Philippe Champagne), Marc Gélinas (Stranger in Subway); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Roger Frappier and Luc Vandal; Arrow Entertainment; 2000-Canada-in French and Norwegian with English subtitles)
Antiseptic and distantly intellectual.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

French Canadian writer-director Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom is a bleak and whimsical morality fable narrated by a blood-smeared fish on the chopping block. Its novel talking fish narrator and its abrupt way of cutting from a scene, gave it a strange and discomforting surreal feel. One of the narrator’s pet sayings was “He who kills will be killed,” as the narrator frames the morality agenda and adds some needed humor to this grim tale. The problem was that the philosophical humor failed to register with me.

The film suffered in how skeletal was the portrayal of the main character and in how abstractly symbolic her story was rather than feeling real. Villeneuve seemed more interested in capturing the concepts of death and love and the natural flow of life (arising from and returning to the ocean), then in having a free-flowing romantic drama. Though beautifully acted and stylishly filmed and musically scored (Tom Waits hip songs are mixed in with Grieg’s romantic symphonies), Maelstrom seems antiseptic and distantly intellectual rather than a tender overcoming of grief tale. Its coldness resembles the modern industrial world and how difficult it is to find others to communicate with.

We first see the film’s protagonist, the 25-year-old successful Montreal businesswoman, the part-owner of three chic boutiques, the attractive Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), when her life is at a low point. Bibi’s pampered materialistic lifestyle crashes after her abortion because she is pained by guilt and faced with depression, and has no one to talk to that seems to understand what she is going through. Not even Bibi’s best friend Claire (Morgenstern) can talk to her. Claire had three abortions, and can only tell Bibi to go on living and stop being so dramatic.

The abortion is graphically shown to the viewer, but the clinical procedure is done in such a sterile way that it removes Bibi from seeing what she is undergoing. When she’s released from the hospital, she slips into an unending maelstrom. Bibi’s investment businessman brother Philippe, who is the boss of her boutiques, is irritated that she goofed up a big money business deal with their Sumatra contacts and lied to him. He thereby kicks her out of the business.

Driving when drunk, Bibi accidentally kills a fishmonger. Tormented by guilt, Bibi doesn’t know how to absolve herself as she grows increasingly suicidal.

A yuppie magazine called The Future interviews Bibi as a role model for today’s youth and gushes over her wealthy and celebrated family, and the lady interviewer tells her that her good fortune must be in the genes as she gushes even more over her legendary fashion world personality mother–now deceased. Growing increasingly more depressed, Bibi asks a stranger at a train stop what to do about her guilt. He tells Bibi to keep the accident to herself because it won’t bring the victim back to life and there’s no sense in further harming herself.

Instead of following that advice, Bibi makes a pact with herself that if she survives her suicide attempt to drive her Mercedes off the pier–then she will try to get her life back together. As a survivor, Bibi still is troubled by taking both the life of her unborn and the immigrant Norwegian fishmonger. So she tracks down the morgue where the victim was cremated and bumps into the dead man’s handsome frogman son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), who persuades her to have coffee and asks her to stay with him while he goes through his father’s possessions. They make love and he falls in love with her, even after she tells him what she did. The same stranger who advised Bibi, sits in a bar and tells Evian to marry the one he loves–that there is nothing more he can do for his father.

It all seemed too artificial, as Bibi’s self-sacrifice seemed gratuitous. The moralizing always seemed heavy-handed, and all those shots of the ocean in a maelstrom seemed too arty. Even when the story entered its lighter moments of lovemaking and redemption, former video director Villeneuve couldn’t stop it from being flat and eventually taking on an unconvincing syrupy flavor.