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.