Maelstrom (2000)

A talking fish on the chopping board partly narrates this interesting if weird non-linearly-structured sophomore feature by Villeneuve that is tonally all over the place, as it explores how cosmic connections mediate between actions and consequences.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Review #2,326

Dir Denis Villeneuve
2000 | Canada | Drama | 86 mins | 1.85:1 | French, English & Norwegian
M18 (passed clean) for sexuality/nudity, language and an abortion scene

Cast: Marie-Josee Croze, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Stephanie Morgenstern
Plot: Bibiane is successful but finds her life lacks purpose. Following several unfortunate events, she gets drunk and hits a man with her car.
Awards: Won FIPRESCI Prize – Panorama (Berlinale); Won Best Canadian Feature Film – Special Jury Citation (Toronto)
International Sales: Alliance Atlantis Intl

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Guilt; Connection
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: MUBI
Spoilers: No

A more interesting work than his debut feature, August 32nd on Earth (1998), Maelstrom won the FIPRESCI Prize in the Panorama section of the Berlinale for its “innovative dramatic structure, its playfulness, and its contemporary sensibility.” 

Still, that wasn’t enough for Denis Villeneuve to be satisfied—he took a nine-year break from feature filmmaking and vowed to come back only when he was ready, making Polytechnique (2009) and Incendies (2010) in quick succession, and everything else is now history. 

Perhaps the closest Maelstrom is to another of his work is Enemy (2013), a lean psychological thriller about doppelgangers with spiders as symbolism.  Here, creatures of the sea are ubiquitous instead—in fact, a talking fish on the chopping board punctuates the narrative by… well, narrating it. 

“All human actions are manifestations against death.”

These scenes seem like something out of a Guillermo Del Toro movie, but lest you think that this is a fantasy, Villeneuve pulls us back into the psychological reality of a woman who feels extreme guilt and becomes suicidal after knocking down an old man in a hit-and-run accident. 

The story somehow develops into a romance amid the personal crisis, as Villeneuve plays with a non-linear structure rather cleverly.  You might already imagine Maelstrom to be tonally all over the place, and that’s true, though I don’t see it as entirely bad… just weird to experience. 

Still, despite its shortcomings, the film does somewhat moderately succeed in exploring how cosmic connections—coincidences, the serendipitous, or just pure luck—can mediate between actions and consequences, rendering them less harsh on the psyche. 

This will be a curious note for fans of the blockbuster auteur who may be interested to explore his indie, arthouse roots. 

Grade: B


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