Following up on his promising 1998 debut feature, the well-traveled Camera d’Or nominee “August 32nd on Earth,” Quebecois musicvid veteran Denis Villeneuve has brewed up “Maelstrom,” a piquant contemporary fable that mixes elements whimsical, macabre and romantic to determinedly offbeat effect. Whether there’s much substance beneath all the surface eccentricity may be the largest among many puzzles here. Nonetheless, “Maelstrom” is always texturally striking and tonally intriguing, its initially chilly flavor thawed in the nick of time by a late-arriving love interest. International sales to arthouse distribs seem likely, though careful marketing will be required to lure ticket buyers to a film whose charms are odd and indefinable by design. Pic won the audience award at the Montreal fest as top Canadian feature, as well as a prize for artistic contribution for Andre Turpin’s lensing.
“Odd” is definitely the word for post-opening-credits seg, the first of several appearances by pic’s narrator: a large, grotesque talking fish (designed by Adrien Morot, raspily voiced by Pierre LeBeau) who delivers weighty philosophical pronouncements and plot commentary whilst awaiting his chopping-block fate in a viscera-strewn ship galley. This fantastical, “Delicatessen”-style framing device for the central narrative is the most elaborate and outlandish example of pic’s myriad bizarre juxtapositions.
It’s certainly a contrast with the sleek, antiseptic, rather empty world inhabited by Bibiane Champagne (Marie-Josee Croze), a 25-year-old model and entrepreneur who’s apparently inherited her famed mother’s fashion empire, running it alongside brother Philippe (Bobby Beshro).
But despite her name, there’s nothing bubbly about Bibiane, and her neglect of business matters is sapping the patience of the far more responsible frere. It’s unclear whether Bibiane’s clinically depressed air preceded her trip to the abortionist, but certainly that procedure (cheekily scored to the original Broadway “Hair” cast’s “Good Morning, Starshine”) doesn’t improve her spirits. She experiences a still greater trauma, however, when, dead-drunk, she slams her car into a pedestrian who’d unwisely dashed into the roadway late at night. Despite evidently serious impact, said jaywalker staggers upright and walks away.
Nonetheless, the next day a brutally hung-over Bibiane wakes up in terror that she may have killed someone. At first she labors to destroy any incriminating evidence. Then she grows obsessed with tracing her possible victim, particularly once a newspaper item details the mystery of a man found “struck by car in his kitchen.” It seems elderly Norwegian fish deliverer Head-Annstein Karlsen (Klimbo) had managed to lumber home and die seated after a hit-and-run.
Angrily dismissed from the family biz after she’s blown a major account, Bibiane tries drowning her anxiety in booze, drugs and anonymous sex. Failing that, she dedicates herself full-time to undercover penitence — snooping that leads to a funeral home encounter with the late man’s handsome son, Evian (Jean-Nicholas Verreault), a deep sea diver who takes her for his hermit-like father’s concerned neighbor. The ruse grows more painful as duo commence an affair idyllic in every aspect save her secret guilt.
For its first hour, “Maelstrom” is more enjoyably idiosyncratic than involving, serving up a queer cocktail of elements and influences. The slightly supernatural, fate-ridden atmosphere, semi-arbitrary plot developments and glam heroine echo Kieslowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy; streaks of dark, sometimes surreal humor have Aki Kaurismaki’s sardonic edge; the jittery, often-handheld lensing and skewed color palette recall various Dogma 95 features. Villeneuve’s peculiar construct does achieve its own arresting, distinctive air.
But it’s not clear whether pic is going anywhere until Verreault’s grieving son turns up to lend both personal warmth and a surprisingly conventional, ballasting romantic focus. Last reels are charming enough to coalesce all of the pic’s preceding curious, clashing aspects into an eccentric zigzag toward final clinch.
Villeneuve tries out myriad gambits here, from rewinding/redirecting narrative at one point to some morbid slapstick regarding the dead father’s ashes. Dead fish pop up as a recurrent motif, and helmer’s screenplay hatches baroque situations like the one in which Bibiane finds herself drinking toasts to her own gruesome death alongside the senior Karlsen’s cheerfully vengeance-minded former co-workers. Such off-kilter comedy is nicely undercut by the tenderness between protag and Evian in explicit yet sweet sex scenes.
Croze is OK in the lead, though whether by design or not, her model-perfect looks and self-absorbed manner make Bibiane seem more shallow than soulful. Variably oddball supporting parts are well cast. Though viewers may sometimes wonder whether there’s any guiding principal here beyond quirkiness for its own sake, Villeneuve always seems in firm control of his vision, with pacing, visuals and a perverse, ironical selection of soundtrack tunes (Tom Waits, Charles Aznavour, Grieg) abetting pic’s slippery moods. Andre Turpin’s disorienting, bleached-out photography, at times processed to near-sepia degrees of color elimination, is a major plus; all other tech aspects are first-rate.