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MAELSTROM

Denis Villeneuve’s strange second feature is about a young woman caught up in a morass of failure, amorality and guilt who, through an accident of fate, undergoes at least the beginnings of redemption. And it might be argued that “Maelstrom” follows a similar course. For its first hour or so, the picture is rather a trial–perverse, obscure and disjointed, marked by abrupt shifts of tone and deliberately unsettling images. The heroine of the piece is having an awful time of it, and the viewer might feel he is, too.

But then something happens which takes the film in a different direction–a somewhat more conventional one, though still allowing for sardonic touches and odd twists. And somehow the last thirty minutes not only make up for what preceded them, but cause one to look upon the whole far more sympathetically. The picture remains an oddity, to be sure, but one that you might wind up remembering with a degree of affection rather than revulsion. Of course, it will take a bit of patience to get past the sixty-minute mark; you might be inclined to bail out early. If you stick it out, however, “Maelstrom” could just work a bit of magic on you before ending with an offhandedly snide but nifty joke.

The weirdness of Villeneuve’s vision is apparent at once, when the film opens with a Breughel-like episode of a hairy brute using a cleaver to chop up fish in what could be either the hold of a ship bathed in red light, or hell. The grotesque figure plops onto his butcher’s block a particularly hideous specimen, which suddenly begins to address us eye-to-eye, as it were, announcing that in its final moments of life it intends to tell us a “very pretty story.” We’re then introduced to a 25-year old Montreal girl, daughter of a famous and wealthy family, who bears the unlikely name of Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josee Croze). It’s immediately clear, however, that her life is a mess: she’s just undergone an abortion, and the string of fashion boutiques she manages are deep in red ink, prompting her financier brother to oust her from control. Bibi tries to drown her troubles in an orgy of drugs, booze and one-night stands, but things only worsen when she hits a pedestrian while driving home drunk. Rather than stopping, she hurries away and tries to destroy all evidence of the crime; but soon, wracked by guilt, she contemplates suicide. Through a series of coincidences, however, she meets her victim’s son, Evian (Jean- Nicolas Verreault), and matters take a surprising turn.

But a verbal synopsis can’t really capture the mood and texture of “Maelstrom,” in which style matters a lot more than plot. Even apart from the periodic reappearances of the gruesome narrator, who seems to get diced and reborn a number of times, and the regular shots of swirling water that serve as a leitmotif, the narrative structure of the piece is deliberately jagged and jarring, even resorting on occasion to flashing forward or back in time to keep us unsettled. There’s recurrent imagery involving dead fish, and so it’s a perverse joke when Evian turns out to be a frogman by trade (his dead father, moreover, worked at a fresh fish market, and as we see him colliding with Bibi’s car we’re told, “Those who have killed will die”–words that certainly apply to him and perhaps prophetically to her). Even the eclectic background score has been chosen to work against the grain; we see fish being harvested to the strains of Grieg, but Galt MacDermot’s “Good Morning Starshine” (from “Hair”) pops up in full force from time to time to provide an ironic commentary to what’s happening onscreen. Moments of sheer gloom alternate with near-farce, and sometimes the two elements are simply combined (as when Bibi is compelled to participate in a lengthy toast in which the participants describe in awful detail the fate they hope will befall the killer of her own victim). There’s even a slapstick episode involving the ashes of the cremated dead man.

All this should indicate how strange a brew “Maelstrom” is; the only comparison that seems even vaguely apt is to Jean-Claude Lauzon’s amazing but deeply unsettling “Leolo” (1992), which had similar measures of conjoined pain and hilarity, or to the pre-“Amelie” efforts of Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Delicatessen,” “City of Lost Children”). Those pictures were frankly better than this one, but if you found them to your liking, Villeneuve’s might engage you, too. If not, you’d best stay away.

ABOUT A BOY

Hugh Grant seems almost perfectly cast as the hero of “About a Boy,” a sly audience-pleaser fashioned from the 1998 novel by Nick Hornby, whose “High Fidelity” was turned into an uneven but periodically brilliant film with John Cusack two years ago. Both books are about guys forced to confront their own immaturity, but ironically though the earlier picture was directed by an Englishman (Stephen Frears) and the present one by Paul and Chris Weitz (whose “American Pie” was quintessentially New World), it was “Fidelity” that transposed its story from London to the U.S., while the present flick remains resolutely British in setting and tone. Its themes are universal, though, and like “Billy Elliot” and “Bridget Jones’s Diary” before it, “Boy” should find a large and appreciative audience on this side of the Atlantic.

Grant plays Will, an egregiously self-centered and superficial fellow living a life of indolence and conspicuous consumption off the royalties from a horrid Christmas ditty penned by his late father. In droll narration expertly stitched together from Hornby’s book, Will describes his happily blasé existence, emphasizing particularly his habit of dumping women before anything like a serious relationship might develop. He finds break-ups with simply single girls, however, to be frequently unpleasant, and fortuitously stumbles upon the fact that single mothers, on the other hand, often end relationships themselves out of concern for their child’s well-being (and, perhaps, a reluctance to make the same mistake twice).. Pretending to be a divorced dad with a fictitious two-year old son, therefore, Will joins an organization called S.P.A.T. (Single Parents, Alone Together) in hopes of meeting precisely the sort of women who are as shy of commitment as he is and with whom he can enjoy brief, painless encounters. The scheme backfires, however, when it leads to his meeting not only Fiona (Toni Collette), a troubled woman with a needy twelve-year old son named Marcus (Nicholas Hoult) who becomes attached to him, but also Rachel (Rachel Weisz), another single mom whom he really falls for, and who assumes that Marcus is actually Will’s son. Before long Will and Marcus have come to depend on each other in a whole variety of ways, and Will is drawn into ever-deeper connections with people he’d initially intended to use and dispose of.

The Weitzes might seem like odd choices to turn this story into a film, not only because of the locale but also because it concerns characters who are older and presumably wiser than the high schoolers of “Pie.” On reflection, though, their involvement is entirely appropriate. Will is, in his own way, as emotionally adolescent as the kids in their earlier picture; he may be in his late thirties by the calendar, but his attitudes are as infantile and clueless as theirs, and his story is equally (though far less grossly) one of growing up. (The fact that Chris attended Cambridge University, moreover, helps to explain how the brothers captured the British atmosphere so well.) And since the screenplay by Peter Hedges and the Weitzes, heavy on the first-person narrative though it might be, very nicely succeeds in transferring the tone and undercurrents of the book to the screen, the result is an excellent adaptation of the source–sharply humorous, taking a periodically unexpected narrative tack, and not nearly as squishily sentimental as it might easily have become.

There are, unfortunately, a few drawbacks. Collette, fine actress though she is, is perhaps too real as the troubled, suicide-prone Fiona. It’s commendable that she doesn’t soften the character into a comic convention, but in her zeal to resist that inclination she makes the unhappy mom an almost frightening figure. Similarly, one’s thankful that Hoult isn’t your standard-issue, cute-as-a-button kid, but he portrays Marcus as so inhibited and introverted that he’s slightly creepy. The big bonding sequence at the close that encapsulates Will’s paternal concern for the lad, moreover–while it embodies the pop music sensibility so characteristic of Hornby–inevitably comes across as an all-too-obvious device to elicit audience sympathy and laughs. Even in that scene, however, Grant’s charm effortlessly wins us over. The role of Will plays to all the actor’s strengths, and he takes advantage of every opportunity. It’s a smart performance–knowing but not smug, easily catching both the surface attractiveness and the underlying pathos of the character without overdoing either. Technically the picture is beautifully made, too.

In sum “About a Boy” is a rarity–essentially a formula picture, but one that exhibits sufficiently eccentric touches to make it, some missteps aside, a pleasure to watch.