“Maelstrom, from my humble point of view, was inspired as follows: we all have an amazing built-in system of personal and social defense: we interpret the world and construct for ourselves an image of it, which comforts us and eases our conscience, and we do this instinctively. For me, Maelstrom is a playful call to be responsible and to be careful. Some of my friends found this definition childish and tried to convince me that Maelstrom was, instead, a dark and serious drama about a woman emerging from chaos and mythomania. Others consider it a luminous noir fable of a voyage to the limits of reality and myth. That’s ridiculous. Don’t believe a word they say.”–Denis Villeneuve, Director’s Note to Maelstrom
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
FEATURING: Marie-Josée Croze, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Pierre Lebeau (voice)
PLOT: A fish about to be chopped up and made into seafood explains that, with his last breaths, he would like to tell a “pretty story” about a young woman “on a long voyage toward reality.” We then meet Bibi, undergoing an abortion; later that day, she will lose her position in the family business, then leave the scene of the accident after striking a pedestrian while driving drunk. In the guilt-ridden weeks that follow, she tracks down the man she struck to find out who he was and what happened to him.
- Maelstrom swept the 2001 Genies (the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards), winning the Best Picture, Director, Lead Actress, Screenplay, and Cinematography awards. Other than film festival appearances, the movie received little distribution outside of Canada. A DVD was released in 2003 with little fanfare, and Maelstrom has been largely forgotten since.
- Set in Montreal, Maelstrom was filmed in French, but a small portion of the dialogue is in untranslated Norwegian, as is the opening epigraph.
- Maelstrom was included in film critic Richard Crouse’s book “The 100 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen” (coincidentally, this makes the eighth of the titles Crouse chose that we’ve independently reviewed).
- In 2010 Denis Villeneuve scored an international arthouse hit with the (not weird) Incendies, a story about twins traveling to the Middle East to uncover a family secret, which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: The grotesque, philosophical fish who croaks out the tale between gasps while waiting for the fishmonger (sharpening his blade on a stone and looking like an executioner) to finish him off.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The story is narrated by a dying fish. If you need more than that, there’s the confusing, impressionistic, nonlinear timeline (that replays certain scenes); some incredible plot and thematic coincidences; and the stylishly stoned scenes of Bibi drowning her woes in booze and pills. But I keep coming back to the fact that the story is narrated by a (surprisingly reflective) dying fish. Talk about cod philosophy!
Trailer for Maesltrom
COMMENTS: “You’ll get nightmares from eating stale octopus,” Bibi’s friend warns her over lunch, and viewers may wonder if this line of dialogue comes from experience: did Denis Villeneuve dream up this script after a bout with bad seafood? That scenario might explain the net of oceanic imagery throughout Maelstrom (even the title, meaning “whirlpool,” is aquatic). Most notably, there’s the fishy tale-teller, but there’s also the coincidental fact that Bibi’s hit-and-run victim is a fishmonger. Her lover is a diver who makes his living under the waves. As Bibi drives away from her outpatient abortion procedure, her path is blocked by a truck transporting seafood that has had an accident and spilled its contents into the road; she casually crushes a fish into red slime with the wheel of her car as she drives past. She dreams of eels and finds fish discarded on sidewalk curbs. Tom Waits’ “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today” plays a significant role as the theme song for the heroine’s suicidal moments. The film’s common color scheme is blue (although the palette switches to fish-gut red for the narrator’s sequences). The protagonist completes her story aboard a ship (and the film’s very last shot is, appropriately enough, a decapitated mackerel).
The ocean, with its thin surface skin hiding a wealth of mysteries beneath, is a symbol of the subconscious. Maelstrom‘s turbulent subconscious is a guilty one. The film begins on a guilty note, with a visibly uncomfortable Bibi trying to relax on an operating table as tubes are inserted into her womb. A bloody discharge is sucked out of her through the clear plastic hoses; we watch the chillingly clinical procedure as the embryonic remains pass through the hands of various technicians on their way to be incinerated, set to the ironically lilting tune of “Good Morning Starshine.” Taking care of her post-procedure, her friend Claire stresses that Bibi must not feel guilty and must accept what has happened. (Their casual conversation is brilliantly littered with ironies; the abortionist himself has “a lot” of kids, and the author of the life-affirming epigram Claire lives by ended his life by his own hand). The abortion sparks guilty feelings in Bibi, but they are magnified a thousandfold when, after a night of drinking away her regrets, she strikes a pedestrian on her way home and drives away without stopping. Soon, her remorse over that act will take her on a hellish journey that leads her to the brink of suicide.
The linkage of guilt and abortion in is Maelstrom interesting; although it’s a common syndrome, not many movies dare to explore this phenomenon. Villaneuve’s movie is far from an anti-abortion screed (it’s a psychological movie, not a political one), but it’s at least mildly daring and politically incorrect to acknowledge that this procedure can be scarring and traumatic for women. Bibi’s abortion is central to the story; we first meet her on the operating table, and the operation is used to establish the guilt feelings that are the central fact of her character. The later, accidental killing only multiplies and intensifies that original guilt; the entire movie could be viewed as a story about the protagonist coping with her regret over terminating her unborn child. It may be a stretch to say that the abundance of fish in the movie is meant to remind us of the old biological myth that embryos develop gills at one point; but the movie’s final funereal catharsis has clear links back to the death of Bibi’s fetus, including a common musical accompaniment.
Overall, Bibi’s regrets are well-earned; the character we meet has few redeeming qualities beyond her surface beauty. She’s irresponsible in the extreme, which explains why she requires the services of an abortionist in the first place. We meet her on what may be the worst day of her life, when all her bad decisions come crashing down on her at once: in between the abortion and the hit-and-run, we discover that she’s lost a small fortune for her wealthy family’s line of fashion boutiques (whether through misconduct or mere incompetence isn’t explicitly stated), and she’s being asked to quietly leave the business. Whenever she fails at something, Bibi kills her pain with pills, booze and casual sex; these abuses swirl into a whirlpool of further problems that threaten to drag her down to the bottom.
There is not much to admire or identify with in Bibi, except for the fact that she suffers; so Marie-Josée Croze’s performance is crucial to creating empathy for the character and making Maelstrom into a moving tragedy rather than a failed satire. With her short, unkempt hair and pale lips, Croze possesses a fragile sort of prettiness that’s easily and affectingly broken whenever her internal traumas send waves of suppressed distress washing across her face. Depressed Bibi almost never smiles, but Croze deploys a wonderfully nuanced range of troubled expressions to keep us from getting bored with her monotonously melancholy moods. Her performance is not all subtlety; the script graces her with a couple of “serious actress moments” to explode into tears and flailing fists. Many lesser actresses could have handled the big emotional moments, but far fewer could keep us interested through the quieter interludes, or make us to care for rather than judge Bibi. Since the script gives us little reason to like the irresponsible socialite, Croze’s demeanor is the key to creating compassion for the character. The movie would fail without a strong central performance, and it’s difficult to believe any actress could have created a more pitiable Bibi than Croze does here.
Besides the acting, the other cinematic essentials are top notch as well. A number of appropriate songs weave their way through the narrative, commenting on the action: “Good Morning Starshine” and “The Ocean Doesn’t Want Me Today” have already been mentioned, but keep an ear out for Charles Aznavour’s upbeat gypsy ballad “Les deux guitars,” which pops in and out of the story like an old friend. Many critics suggest André Turpin’s cinematography is worthy of a Krzysztof Kieslowski “Three Colors” film (primarily because of the sometimes subliminal way he bathes scenes in a wash of blue, with the occasional red for contrast and accent). There’s a beautiful shot where morning breaks Bibi’s room as she sleeps, passed out, on her couch; the room remains in darkness despite the daylight visible through her apartment window, then inexplicably lights up from the inside. Many beautifully lensed shots of rippling or churning water are interspersed throughout the movie, often serving as precognitive visions of scenes to come.
Our fish narrator characterizes Bibi’s character arc as “a long journey toward reality”; in keeping with that road map, the surreal discursions tend to dry up toward the end of the movie. The film’s resolution plays out an implausible scenario, but stylistically it is far more straightforward than the first part of the film; the narrative starts to march forward in a straight line, and fewer and fewer oddities intrude on the drama. Not surprisingly, I prefer the first two-thirds of the film. The story is simple, probably too simple to entertain if told in a straightforward way. As it is, there are moments where the narrative lags, and too many mood-establishing scenes that are nothing but shots of Bibi looking forlorn and troubled (thank goodness Croze’s face is so pleasant to gaze at!) In the beginning, the choppy narrative, floating along from scene to scene with occasional aquatic interjections from our gilled narrator, serves the material well: a fable of repressed guilt should feel strange in the telling. Bibi’s emergence above the waves, into “reality” and redemption, is less interesting than her floundering to keep her head above water. It’s easy to see how movie straights would find the carefully layered weirdness to detract from what might otherwise play as a searing drama, and I do see some merit in their position. The gasping narrator, in particular, is a distancing technique, and his pronouncements (often while he’s in the process of being gutted) add a note of absurd comedy that’s could be seen as a welcome break from the grim story, but could just as easily be viewed as completely out of harmony with the story’s tone—or even be judged as a jokey betrayal of Croze’s sincere emotional portrayal. But I do believe that without the narration, and the strange coincidences occasioned by stale octopus, and the mysterious fish-faced stranger to whom Bibi and her lover separately confess their innermost secrets, and the films other odd digressions, Maelstrom would be a far less memorable drama. And that makes it a victory for weirdness.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…the craggy-voiced fish (Pierre Lebeau), the movie’s philosophical voice, periodically punctuates the soundtrack of a movie whose strategy is to surprise us by taking abrupt surreal sidetracks… As weird as it may sound, the movie’s aquatic fixation is integral to its concept. For above and beyond telling a story, ‘Maelstrom’ is a meditation on the disconnection between the glossy surfaces of high-end urban existence and the life-and-death realities they camouflage.”–Stephen Holden, The New York Times (contemporaneous)
“…wanders all over the map thematically and stylistically, and borrows heavily from Lynch, Jeunet, and von Trier while failing to find a spark of its own.”–Marc Holcomb, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)
IMDB LINK: Maelstrom (2000)
DVD INFO: The out-of-print but still available Arrow Entertainment DVD (buy) contains no extras except for the original trailer, two trailers for other Arrow Entertainment titles, a small photo gallery (mostly of various Marie-Josée Croze), cast and crew bios, and a short director notes.