ⓘ Maelstrom (film)
Maelstrom is a 2000 Canadian romantic drama film written and directed by Denis Villeneuve. It stars Marie-Josee Croze as a depressed young businesswoman who becomes romantically involved with the son of a man she killed in a hit and run accident. Employing fantasy and comedic elements, Maelstrom is narrated by a talking fish.
Villeneuve conceived of the story, basing it on his interest in car accidents and modelling the protagonist after various women he knew. He cast Croze, then a novice actress, in the lead role. Filming took place in Montreal in 1999, with animatronics to depict the fish narrator.
The film premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2000 and received positive reviews, with some detractors. It won five Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, and the FIPRESCI Prize at the 51st Berlin International Film Festival.
While being gutted alive by a fishmonger, a dying fish chooses to share a story that took place in Quebec during the autumn of 1999. A 25-year-old businesswoman named Bibiane Champagne, head of three clothing boutiques, has an abortion. She is interviewed by a journalist about her success and being the daughter of a famous person named Flo Fabert. Bibiane claims business is good, but her partner, her brother Philippe, accosts her for numerous failures. She is supported by her friend, Claire, but struggles with drugs and alcohol.
One night, while driving, Bibiane accidentally hits a 53-year-old Norwegian Canadian fishmonger, Annstein Karson, and subsequently flees the scene. Injured, Annstein stumbles back to his apartment, where he dies at the kitchen table. While at a restaurant, Claire and Bibiane order octopus but discover it is stale. The restaurant investigates the poor quality of octopus and realize the usual octopus trapper, Annstein, is missing, and find him dead. Bibiane reads confirmation of the death in a newspaper, and considers turning herself in; she confides in a stranger on a subway and consults him about turning herself in, but he tells her this will not bring the victim back. She eventually decides to dispose of the evidence, driving her car into a river. She survives, and interprets her survival as a sign that she deserves to recover her life.
The fishmongers son Evian, a diver who was recently inspecting Manicouagan River, learns Annstein was cremated. This went against his plans for burial at sea. He encounters Bibiane by chance and she poses as his late fathers neighbour. Evian falls in love with her, and she takes him away from a planned flight to have sex at her apartment. He later learns the plane crashed in Baie-Comeau with no survivors, and realizes Bibiane killed his father. Conflicted about his love for his fathers killer, a stranger in a bar tells him to marry her and never tell anyone.
Bibiane helps Evian sort through Annsteins possessions, and she accompanies Evian to Lofoten to dispose of the ashes. Finally, the fish narrator decides to conclude his story by revealing the meaning of life, but is promptly killed mid-sentence.
2.1. Production Development
Director Denis Villeneuve conceived of a story, that would revolve around a car accident:
Its more a film about responsibility and. Car crashes are the most dramatic events common and closest to us. Thats why Im very interested in them. The film is a dark tale. One of its subjects is mythology. Theres a strange narrator telling the story from a fantasy world. Its a hyper-realistic film, but it goes very close to fantasy at some points.
For Bibiane, Villeneuve modeled the character after numerous women he knew, one of whom he described as a "mythomaniac", like Bibiane. He began making notes on the story in spring 1998, while finishing his film August 32nd on Earth, but set it aside as "too difficult", given its detached heroine. He began working on the Maelstrom screenplay again later that year, due to his persistent visions of the story. He began pitching the screenplay, and later said some readers told him it gave them nightmares, and that it was "too dark and heavy", though Villeneuve regarded it as nearly comedic. Downplaying the dark subject matter, he described the story as "a playful call to be responsible and to be careful". In his efforts for "balance" in respect to the abortion scene, Villeneuve said he was pro-choice but the operation "should never be taken lightly".
The inspiration for the narration was a trout he had for dinner, which gave him food poisoning. This led him to choose a fish as the storyteller, which he also liked because it would add "a purely fictional element" to an otherwise realistic story. He had also contemplated the alternative of a talking dog, based on a puppy his family had recently adopted, but preferred the metaphor of "a fish out of water". In his story, the fish is being gutted and repeatedly dies only to resurrect and resume narration. Villeneuve explained this, saying, "For me it was the kind of image which was like all the storytellers from the beginning of humanity trying to tell a story, the same story over and over again. I think its an image that is like my relationship with cinema. And then I think theres a link between storytelling and death".
2.2. Production Casting
In summer 1999, casting began. Villeneuve sought "someone with a very specific energy" for the lead, and during casting met novice actress Marie-Josee Croze for the first time. He chose her with no pressure from the financiers to choose a better-known star. Jean-Nicholas Verrault was cast with experience in television, while Stephanie Morgenstern was known for appearing in the 1997 The Sweet Hereafter.
2.3. Production Filming
Principal photography started in Montreal in September 1999, lasting until November. The fish narrator was portrayed via animatronics; while inspired by a trout, the model was designed to resemble a prehistoric species "with big black eyes and a sad, gaping mouth".
Maelstrom premiered at the Montreal World Film Festival on 29 August 2000, before opening the Perspective Canada section in the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2000. The film had its U.S. debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2001, where it received a positive audience response.
In early 1999, Alliance Atlantis chose to distribute the film in Quebec and internationally, while Odeon Films would release the film in the rest of Canada. It went to Canadian theatres on 15 September 2000. In July 2001, it opened on three screens in Paris and 11 total in France, to a small audience of 300 people on its first day.
4.1. Reception Critical response
Voir critic Eric Fourlanty positively reviewed the photography and direction, comparing it to a dream, but found the writing lacking in places. The Ottawa Citizen s Jay Stone gave it three and a half stars, and wrote it "aches with allegory" but had humour. Stone specifically noted the film plays "Good Morning Starshine" over the abortion scene and uses the end title "Fin". For Variety, Dennis Harvey called the first two-thirds enjoyably idiosyncratic", with a "slightly supernatural, fate-ridden atmosphere". Vincent Ostria wrote in Les Inrockuptibles that the production initially disappointed, but it featured whimsy and an ironic use of music, and Villeneuve was among the better Canadian directors behind Atom Egoyan. Stephen Holden assessed it as "a meditation on the disconnection between the glossy surfaces of high-end urban existence and the life-and-death realities they camouflage", with Dadaist elements. In The Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas hailed it as a "stylish, breathless film, very much the dynamic work of a young man of talent, passion and brashness". Slant Magazine s Ed Gonzalez dismissed it as "instantly forgettable". The Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday called it "beautifully composed" in parts but ultimately disappointing.
In 2017, IndieWire ranked Maelstrom as Villeneuves worst film, though not so much "a bad film so much as it is a half-baked one". The Canadian Press recalled it that year as an "off-beat parable" that "showcases Villeneuves more avant-garde sensibilities".
The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 81% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 37 reviews, with an average rating of 6.74/10. On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 66 out of 100 based on 18 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
4.2. Reception Accolades
Maelstrom received 10 nominations, more than any other film at the 21st Genie Awards. It won five, including Best Motion Picture. Canada submitted it for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but it did not receive a nomination. Producer Roger Frappier and Croze, hoping to secure an Academy Award nomination, also unsuccessfully campaigned for a Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film nomination, screening the film for 60 members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association in Los Angeles in winter 2000.