Denis Villeneuve’s Maelström opens with an unexpected narration from 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 winces from the blow of the cleaver. The Fish will serve as both our narrator and as a 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.
Early on Maelström proves itself to be a fascinating film that is not for the faint of heart.
Throughout the first act we learn more about Bibiane. She struggles under the weight of managing three boutiques, and cannot escape the shadow of her father, a local celebrity. She turns to drugs and alcohol to cope, but mostly she wanders through life as a huge mess. Her issues are compounded when she, while driving drunk, unknowingly hits, and subsequently kills, an old fishmonger. Racked with guilt upon realizing what she has done, but unwilling to turn herself in, Bibiane drives her car into the river in an effort to both kill herself and destroy the evidence.
Interpreting her miraculous survival as a sign, Bibiane sets out to seek redemption for her past ways. However the arrival of the old man’s son Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), who is handling the funeral affairs, unexpectedly alters her path towards salvation even further. Though Bibiane initially bristles through her interactions with Evian, she finds herself drawn to him, eventually falling for the young man.
Maelström ultimately uses the latter moments to reflect on the peculiar will they / won’t they nature of Bibiane and Evian’s burgeoning relationship. We struggle to find a precise emotional response due to the intense dramatic irony involved. However, it feels powerful and redemptive for the both of them.
Villeneuve’s distinctive mark is all over the film, but is especially noticeable in the final act. His eye for subtlety and dark tones gives the film a significant feel. It allows Maelström to be more than a film that simply relies on its shock factor. Despite the peculiar aesthetics, and the fact it is narrated by a hacked-up fish, Maelström proves itself to be a surprisingly delightful film. It offers a glimpse into the immense talent that Villeneuve would expand upon with his subsequent films.