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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Maelstrom
Arrow Features // R // March 18, 2003
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Don Houston | posted December 7, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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Movie: Artistic movies tend to be looked at by professional critics with rose-colored glasses. Rather than appreciate a straight-forward plot, decent camera work, solid acting and all the other aspects the majority of us seem to enjoy, they often look for some deeper meaning, even when there simply isn't any to be found, in order to justify their salaries. By no means does that suggest that all critics are high on pretentious films or that they all have their heads in the clouds but having tried for a week to decipher a little known release, Maelstrom, I've come to the conclusion that some people would enjoy watching grass grow and write about it with high praise in order to convince likeminded people that they didn't get it either.

The movie is narrated by a fish about to be cleaned and gutted at a processing plant by a large blue-collar worker. Yes, it started off pretty bizarrely, to be sure. The fish's fate is undeniably grim (and short) so he tells the story about a twenty five year old Canadian woman, Bibiane, who has the good life. She is an executive in her family's chain of clothing stores, is a fashion model on the side, has tremendous wealth and prestige, and generally lives the good life. All is not as it appears though since she has an abortion (shown in graphic detail with lots of shots centering on the now-dead fetus), is in debt over her head (having stolen $200,000 from the business), and has an empty life. She complicates matters by getting fired, then getting drunk and kills a man after running him over (and not stopping to assist him). So the good life turns bad and she wants to end it all by committing suicide. At this point, by coincidence, she runs into the man's son. The son is approximately her age and the two hit it off due, in part to her guilt over killing the father and his emotionally turbulent crisis. As the two get closer, their respective perspectives show the viewer a lot about life, although most of it negative.

I'm sure most of us could imagine the meaning to the whole movie as something deeper than it was but how much speculation should a review have? After checking out some other reviews, written by professionals, I came to the conclusion that I saw something a bit less than they did, until I read what the director said about it. Here's what the writer/director said in his note to viewers: "Maelstrom, from my humble point of view, was inspired as follows: 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. Some of my friends found this definition childish and tried to convince me that Maelstrom was, instead, a dark and serious drama about a woman emerging from chaos and mythomania. Others consider it a luminous noir fable of a voyage to the limits of reality and myth. That's ridiculous. Don't believe a word they say.
As the author, I tell you; be careful. Don't trust your friends! And Happy Maelstrom to you!" Denis Villeneuve

I'm sure he was partially putting us on but at the same time I wonder if he was dead serious in his comments. Certainly the use of a dying fish on a table as a narrator means the director is trying to be outlandish and surely the circumstances of the lead character's life were meant to impress on us a certain amount of angst. At no time did I find her sympathetic and that's what would be needed to truly appreciate this film. On the other hand, the visuals used to convey the story were actually very interesting and aside from the content of the story, well done.

The acting by Marie-Josee Croze was very solid and the direction, outside of the writing (since the writer and director were the same guy, neither position can be argued against one another for the shortcomings of the film), was good. I think those who enjoy highly open for interpretation films that run on the art house circuit might want to rent this one but the vast majority of people are going to want to Skip It unless they're gluttons for punishment. Interesting visuals do not a good film make and while I'm interested enough in Villeneuve's style to check out other works of his, I'm not going to try and trick you into seeing this one.

Picture: The picture was presented in it's original aspect ratio of 1.85:1, unlike a previous release that was full frame. The print had some scratches and there were compression artifacts at times but nothing that would detract from the story itself (a shame in this case). The colors were muted but I really think that was done on purpose to emphasize the message of the movie and the blacks were not true black in this low budget release.

Sound: The audio was presented in stereo French with optional English subtitles. The vocals were slightly hollow and the music lacked punch but it was about what you'd expect from such a foreign release. The audio track could well have been cleaned up a bit but wasn't out of character with the visuals.

Extras: There were three trailers, a photogallery, some cast and crew biographies, and a note from the director. In short, not a lot to add value to the release.

Final Thoughts: Movies that require an awful lot of work with little pay off remind me of trying to ask out a rich gal while wearing workout clothes, every once in awhile it'll pay off but most of the time you'll end up frustrated and alone. The technical issues were on the low end but it was the story elements that really killed this DVD from being anything that regular people would enjoy. As solid as Croze's acting skills may be and as well developed as Villeneuve's direction has proven in the past, this was more of a failed attempt to experiment than anything else.

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