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'Maelstrom' is a long voyage into a chaotic life

Friday, May 03, 2002

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Talking fish are nothing new to "Sopranos" fans.


RATING: Not rated but R in nature for abortion, nudity, sex and brief violence. In French with English subtitles.

STARRING: Marie-Josee Croze

DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve



Instead of providing clues to a mobster's betrayal, however, a doomed fish in "Maelstrom" narrates the chaotic life of a 25-year-old Montreal woman named Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josee Croze). It's like one of those multiple-car pileups in the fog; it just keeps getting worse, but you are compelled to look and see how it's going to end and what the damage will be.

Much of the maelstrom is of Bibi's own making. As the movie opens, she is undergoing an abortion in which we witness more of the graphic details than she does. After Bibi makes a cell-phone call to confirm, "Don't worry. I took care of it," the fish tells us, "A young woman starts on a long voyage toward reality." It is a long voyage, to suicidal depths and back.

Along the way, we learn Bibi is the daughter of a famous mother (who was a model or designer or some sort of fashion fixture) and runs three Canadian clothing boutiques, but not very well. She's lost $200,000 and also is unable to stop shoplifters from spiriting away her trendy merchandise. One night, after drinking and partying, a sleepy Bibi hits a pedestrian on her way home.

Bibi's subsequent days are like a series of dominoes that tumble down in slow motion. When Bibi meets the accident victim's son (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), her guilt is repeatedly mistaken for good intentions. In a world where the truth may set one person free and shock and shackle another, Bibi must decide what to do.

The daisy chain of disasters in "Maelstrom" is the reverse of the happy accidents in "Amelie." A restaurant customer who sends her octopus dish back sets into a motion a series of events ending with the discovery of a corpse, although a last-minute declaration of desire proves to be a life-saver.

Swimming throughout the picture are recurring images of churning water that will provide after-death peace, placid water that gives rebirth and fish. Talking and otherwise.

In the press notes, director-writer Denis Villeneuve describes the subtitled movie, now at the Harris Theater, this way: "We all have an amazing built-in system of personal and social defense; we interpret the world and construct for ourselves an image of it, which comforts us and eases our conscience, and we do this instinctively.

"For me, 'Maelstrom' is a playful call to be responsible and to be careful." His friends consider it "a dark and serious drama about a woman emerging from chaos and mythomania." Or a "luminous noir fable of a voyage to the limits of reality and myth." It's all three, although "mythomania" is enough to make you gag or giggle.

"Maelstrom" is a movie that initially tests your patience -- with Bibi's aimless behavior and the way the story dribbles out details about her life. About midway through, a chance at redemption shifts everything into proper perspective. Croze allows Bibi to become sympathetic rather than selfish and you find yourself squirming along with her.

It's still maddening at times, but occasionally darkly funny as it catches you in its net -- like the Norwegian fishermen who use music to ensnare fish. Or so the movie tells us.

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