Films

Seductive Views from the Vortex

Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom tops a trio of Montreal movies about lives in freefall

Brian D. Johnson October 23 2000
Films

Seductive Views from the Vortex

Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom tops a trio of Montreal movies about lives in freefall

Brian D. Johnson October 23 2000

Seductive Views from the Vortex

Films

Denis Villeneuve’s Maelstrom tops a trio of Montreal movies about lives in freefall

Brian D. Johnson

If you want to get the audience to sit up and take notice, it never hurts to open with a talking fish. Our narrator is a gnarled lunker on a chopping block, an ancient creature with the voice of a Pernod-soaked chansonnier. Gasping his final breaths, he offers “to tell you a story, a very nice story.” OK. Now what? Cut to a reflection in the blue eye of a beautiful woman who is undergoing an abortion. Surgical images fly by to the incongruously merry sound of Good Morning Starshine as something is decanted into a dish—a crimson swirl—then briskly sealed in a Baggie, dropped into a cardboard box and fed to the flames of a big blue incinerator. So begins Maelstrom, a light-dark fable of love and death, which amply lives up to its title. The bravura opening sets in motion a whirlpool of coincidence, accident and archetype—motion picture as Jungian Jacuzzi.

Maelstrom is one of three new movies by young Montreal directors making their second features—along with Two Thousand and None and Saint-Jude—and they are all moral fables that look for lightness on the dark side of the human

condition. But Maelstrom is by far the most accomplished. Directed with astonishing flair by Denis Villeneuve, and powered by a charismatic performance from Marie-Josée Croze, this is an art film that is more bracing than most, surfing themes of guilt and despair without getting dragged down by the undertow. Its the Canadian movie of the year.

Like August 32nd on Earth, Villeneuve’s 1998 feature debut, Maelstrom is about an enervated beauty in her mid-20s whose world is turned upside down by a traumatic car accident. But in this case, instead of almost losing her life, she takes someone else’s.

Our heroine is Bibiane (Croze), a chic Montreal woman who runs a chain of high-end fashion stores. Depressed after her abortion, she gets drunk, drives home in the rain and flattens a Norwegian fishmonger with her BMW. The hit-and-run victim staggers to his feet and crawls home to die at his kitchen table. As Bibiane learns of his death, her world starts to unravel, until she cannot resist tracking down the fishmongers son (Jean-Nicolas Verreault). He’s a diver named Evian, and he is just the tall drink of water she needs. We see him emerge from the depths beneath a dam (her repression as a concrete curve) before he’s helicoptered home for the funeral. Introducing herself as a neighbour of the deceased, Bibiane lets herself be seduced, still trembling with the secret that she has killed his father.

The movie wears its symbolism on its sleeve. In Villeneuve’s painterly compositions, the colour blue is ubiquitous, just as white dominated August 32nd on Earth, which adopted the desert as its metaphor, the absurdly white Utah salt flats. Maelstroms metaphor is water—dark water spilling with dead fish, shower water that won’t wash away the guilt, the suicide water of a harbour at night as Bibiane tries to drown herself with her car.

Her anguish uncoils as a form of erotic torture. And Villeneuve shoots Croze like one of those Godard women— beautifully deranged, with dark hair always falling across her face. Or like Juliette Binoche in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s

Blue. In fact, as a colour-coded tale of a car accident that sends a woman spinning into a circumstantial freefall, Maelstrom is highly reminiscent of Blue and Red from Kieslowski s Three Colours trilogy.

“I adore Kieslowski,” Villeneuve acknowledges, “and although I wasn’t thinking of him, I’m sure there’s some influence. My film is full of accidents. It’s an homage to accidents, one after the other. The acceleration of events is a little over the top, but I tried to make it as realistic as possible.” What about the storytelling fish? “It’s from another dimension. Godard said,

‘You have to confront vague ideas with clear images.’ And for me there’s a connection between telling a story and death. What it is I’m not sure.”

Villeneuve, a 32-year-old father of three, has devoted his first two movies to what he calls “the first life crisis—that particular slice of age between 25 and 30 years old when there’s all this pressure to come to terms with your ideals.”

Both movies were “acts of abandonment,” he adds. “If I’d asked myself why I was doing them, I would have been paralyzed.”

The mercurial Croze served Villeneuve’s vision like an artist’s model. “She has a really fascinating face,” he says, “always changing according to her mood. I had to be careful with the camera angles or she’d look like an entirely different character from one scene to the next.” The 30-yearold Croze, who began her career as a painter, seems no closer to defining herself than he is. “I don’t know why I’m doing this métier,” she says. “I’m a very solitary person. I read Nietzsche and 19th-century novels. But I connected with the character— this very deep feeling of powerlessness.”

Acting is a submissive process. And one reason that Maelstrom works so well is that its protagonist is utterly submerged in the movie, physically and emotionally. An instrument of the director and the script, she is the movie.

The same cannot be said of the lead actors in Saint-Jude and Two Thousand and None. Although both are exceptionally talented, they don’t seem at home in their films. Saint-Jude stars Liane Balaban, who made such a winning first impression as a Cape Breton misfit in New Waterford Girl. As Saint-Judes title character, the 20-year-old Toronto actor plays a Montreal street kid, a petty thief cruising through a world of junkies and

hustlers. And she seems miscast. “I’ve been on the streets since I was a little baby,” Jude informs us. “How can you rehabilitate someone who’s been bad since day one?” But no matter how hard Montreal screenwriter Heather O’Neill tries to spell out her plight—and she tries too hard— Balaban doesn’t look like she has ever lived on the streets.

Jude’s world includes her bookie dad (Nicholas Campbell), a fatherly pedophile (Raymond Cloutier), a cute child prostitute (Victor Soumis) and a dreamboat drug addict (Kris Lemche). But the self-conscious dialogue has them all talking like writers, busy explaining themselves while a torpor settles over the drama. Director John L’Ecuyer has already mined these mean streets before—in Curtiss Charm ( 1995)—and now it may be time to move on.

Two Thousand and None lets American character actor John Turturro do something he doesn’t get to do much back home: be a star. In the first reel alone, he has more sex than in most of his other movies combined. Turturro plays Benjamin, a celebrated paleontologist who gets a new lease on life when he learns that a brain disease will kill him in five weeks. Empowered by his deadline, and the threat of imminent amnesia, Benjamin cuts a swath through a circle of anxious friends, and sifts through flashbacks of an orphaned childhood, projected as home-movie hallucinations.

Turturro, a dynamic actor on a long leash, bulls his way through this quirky comedy, while the other characters are reduced to foils. And although writer-director Arto Paragamian works a deft counterpoint between memory and desire, amnesia and death, the drama feels conceptually frozen—like the fossilized fish that serves as its pet motif.

As emerging talents, Paragamian and Maelstroms Villeneuve both contributed vignettes to Cosmos, a 1996 omnibus of short films. Curiously, with their second features, both directors are fixated on ancient fish. One chooses a fossil that speaks from a locked past, setting the tone for an elegant but bone-dry abstraction that never comes fully to life. The other chooses a creature hauled from the deep, an ancient mariner who spins a yarn with his dying breath—and pulls us in. E3