review by Paula Nechak, 5 April 2002

It's ironic that we're neighbors and yet glimpse so few films birthed from the creative and iconoclastic cinematic bed of Canada. Besides Atom Egoyan and David Cronenberg, Bruce McDonald, Patricia Rozema and David Cronenberg often find distribution and Don McKellar, Lea Pool and Guy Maddin attain limited release. But many other director's works are never seen here and it's left to DVD to bring them home. You can't "blame Canada" for lack of product because it's out there and DVD, with its universal accessibility, is better than nothing at all. 

We never got to see Denis Villeneuve's apocalyptic 1998 film, August 32nd on Earth, despite the presence of international star Pascale Bussieres. And Villeneuve's Maelstrom, which won five Canadian Genie Awards, including best film, direction, cinematography, screenplay and actress, is only now crawling onto half-a-dozen American rep house screens.

Maelstrom is a unique entry from Canada. It opens with visual strains sifted from the absurdist surrealism of a Caro and Jeunet film. A crusty old fish (voice by Pierre Lebeau) sits on the butcher's block; it begins to narrate, "Our story begins with someone leaving. It's an old story," and introduces us to Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josee Croze), women's couture shop manager and daughter of a mythic celebrity, who is in the midst of an abortion. Bibiane leads a wasteful life, carousing, drinking, picking up men until one night as she caroms home drunk, she accidentally crashes her BMW into a man crossing the road.

"He who has killed will be killed," interjects the fish, about to be beheaded by a cleaver. But so happens the cathartic act that will shake up Bibiane's life forever. Maelstrom is about cataclysmic change, shedding the materialism and legacy of having too much rather than self-knowledge and worth. Bibiane, in misery over her carelessness, decides redemption will come by driving her car into the waterway. If she lives "she will begin to live" and indeed, she does survive her self-induced punishment.

As might be expected, Maelstrom is saturated with scenes of surging, gushing water - the shower, a car wash, the ocean: water is the cleansing, purging, purifying entity that washes away demons and the destructive impulse. The manner in which water is used throughout the film lends to a visual feast as well. The film begins its first half hued with sterile whites and blues, and only erodes into warmer tones as Bibiane comes into some sense of place, purpose and awareness and is finally able to shed the sterile, confining chains of a privileged existence and begin, in shucking off the legend of a famous parent, to fathom her own heart and moral compass.

Maelstrom is not a total success as a film, however, despite its wit, visual prowess and intriguing premise. The third act sinks into a morass of clichés and an attempt at cleverness in the final frame falls flat. Yet for the first two acts Villeneuve has crafted a movie that contains a message and metaphor. Bibiane is a symbol for our cultural emptiness, wealth of material possessions, obsession with youth and beauty and the ease and lack of conscience with which we dispose of our guilt and troubles. It is only through an ultimate tragedy that she can wake up from her malaise and begin the process of reevaluating her life.

Actress Marie-Josee Croze, who backslid by co-starring in the fiasco, Battlefield Earth, after the success of Maelstrom, and who has the lead in Ararat, the new Atom Egoyan film, is perilously wonderful as Bibiane. She's a fearless actor, versatile and dimensional and with a strength of will that belies her exterior beauty. She gives us access to the dark and light within Bibiane and isn't at all afraid to be unlikable and hard. It's fun to watch her wake up and open herself to her own vulnerabilities and wants.

Yet even she cannot quite rescue the anticlimactic effect that Maelstrom suffers under. After so much marking of her intimate journey to wholeness, that pesky final act is a slap in the face to the carefully choreographed chaos that has made her trip so compelling. The DVD edition is spare, few frills rather than the usual cast and crew biographies and subtitle selection, but it is pristine and crisp and the color is perfectly balanced despite its second-best status to the movie-theatre experience.

Written and
Directed by:

Denis Villeneuve

Marie-Josée Croze
Jean-Nicolas Verreault
Stephanie Morgenstern
Pierre Lebeau
John Dunn-Hill
Marc Gélinas
Bobby Beshro
Marie-France Lambert
Virginie Dubois
Daniel Turcot
Luis Oliva
Darrell Lloyd Tucler
Léo Arguello
Martin Boucher





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