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Denis Villeneuve Week – Day 1: “Maelstrom” (Canada, 2000)

Welcome to Denis Villeneuve Week here on Plot and Theme! I have been fascinated by Denis Villeneuve (pronounced, Deh-NEE Vill-NEV) for about the last six months, when Jake Gyllenhaal’s recent resurgence led me to Enemy. Since then, I have devoured everything Villeneuve, and truly believe he is one of the best directors working today – especially if you’re into something a little darker. In celebration of Sicario, which enters wide release on October 2nd and has hooked me since I saw this trailer, I have chosen to review all of Villeneuve’s previous features. We start with a truly weird one: Maelström.

Villeneuve’s story (which he wrote) opens with narration by a bloodied, dying fish on a fishmonger’s chopping block. The scene is absurd and grisly, as the fish (voiced by Pierre Lebeau) gasps for oxygen in between wincing from the blow of the cleaver. The Fish will serve as both our narration and our framing device throughout the course of this story, but for now he merely introduces us to our main character, Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze). In a scene meant to parallel the brutality of the fishmonger’s hacking while simultaneously lacking its absurdity, we witness Bibiane’s no-punches-pulled visit to an abortion clinic and her subsequent emotional distress.

Throughout the first act we learn more about Bibiane. She struggles under the weight of running three boutiques, and cannot escape the shadow of her father, a local celebrity. She turns to drugs and alcohol to cope, but mostly wanders through life as a huge mess. Her issues compound when she hits something during one of her drunk driving episodes. When Bibiane discovers blood and hair on her car the next morning, she begins to understand that the thump she heard last night was not a cat or a dog – but a person. After a quick investigation, she learns that a 55-year old fishmonger had just succumbed to his injuries sustained from a hit-and-run the previous night.

Racked with guilt but unwilling to turn herself in, Bibiane drives her car into the river either in an effort to kill herself or destroy the evidence. When she survives, she interprets this as a sign that her redemption is possible. And, when the old man’s son Evian arrives to handle the funereal affairs, she involves herself in an effort to make amends, eventually falling for the young man.

The final act of Maelström is a peculiar will-they / won’t-they between Bibiane and Evian. We struggle to find a precise emotional response to their burgeoning relationship due to the intense dramatic irony involved, but it feels powerful and redemptive for the both of them. Villenueve places his mark on the film in this final act with an eye for subtlety and dark under tones, giving this film a more significant feel than mere weirdness and shock factor. Despite the bizarre framing structure, narration from a dying, hacked-up Fish, and a main character who flirts with being beyond redemption, Maelström is a delightful film full of peculiar aesthetics.
Villeneuve’s early feature film was well-regarded by the critics, as it was nominated in ten categories for the 21st Genie Awards (the Canadian Oscars, basically), winning five – Best Performance for an Actress in a Leading Role, Best Directing, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography, and Best Motion Picture. Villeneuve himself took home three of these, and they would not be his last. Visit back tomorrow for another Best Motion Picture winner at the Genie Awards, the first feature-length English language film directed by Villeneuve – the school-shooting retrospective, Polytechnique.

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Derek Jacobs

Chicago,IL 60606

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