Maelström (Director: Denis Villeneuve): My first exposure to Villeneuve’s work was his wickedly funny and stylish short Next Floor, and his latest feature Polytechnique just won the award for Best Canadian Film of 2009 from the Toronto Film Critics Association, so I was eager to watch this film, which originally played to considerable buzz at the 2000 Toronto International Film Festival. I’m sorry that it took me so long to catch up with this unique film, and I can tell you that I’m going to be watching Polytechnique and every other bit of film Villeneuve has had a hand in creating as soon as I can.
Maelström is the sort of audacious filmmaking that begins its tale with an untranslated title card in Norwegian, continues with a talking fish as narrator, and then assaults you with the strains of “Good Morning Starshine” (from the musical Hair) over scenes of a woman having an abortion. And that’s just the first five minutes.
Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze) is a successful young entrepreneur, running a fashionable boutique with her brother. They are the children of a famous designer, and this seems to weigh heavily on her. Weighing more heavily is the guilt she feels for the abortion she’s just had. After a night of partying to forget her pain, she drives drunk, hitting a pedestrian on her way home. She finds out a few days later in the newspaper that the man dragged himself out of the road, staggered home, and died sitting at his kitchen table. With her guilt now doubled, she’s disconnected even further from her work and ponders suicide. Planning to ditch her car in the river, she almost drowns, but emerges from the water hoping for a second chance at life.
Her second chance arrives in the form of the son of the man she’s killed. While his father was a Norwegian fisherman, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault) is a scuba diver (or charmingly referred to in the subtitles, a “frogman”), working for Hydro Quebec in the remote northern part of the province. When Bibiane is drawn to the morgue at the same time as Evian, they begin an enigmatic relationship in which Bibiane pretends to be his father’s neighbour. Eventually the truth will come out and these two people will have to decide how to move forward with their lives.
Maelström has the sumptuous visual style and morbidity of Peter Greenaway and the obsession with coincidence and weighty philosophical themes as Krzysztof Kieslowski. While that might not appeal to everyone, it’s a dream match for me, and while I caught myself a few times thinking the film was just a bit too pretty, I was solidly engrossed throughout and satisfied by the conclusion.
Bold filmmakers like Villeneuve are rare, and they can often make terrible mistakes in judgement. Witness Julio Medem’s most recent film Caótica Ana (review), or Jaco van Dormael’s Mr. Nobody, both huge personal disappointments after I’d enjoyed their earlier work. But I’m always willing to give filmmakers like these another chance, hoping that failure doesn’t blunt their appetite for risk-taking. Or mine.