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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Darrell Lloyd Tucler