MAELSTRÖM. A surprising film by Denis Villeneuve, narrated by… a fish

Denis Villeneuve tells the story of a woman, whose decision to abort an unborn child leads her to the edge of the abyss in an absolutely raw and ascetic way.

Edward Kelley

11 January 2024

A maelstrom – a whirlpool created by a variety of powerful, often opposing forces – is destructive, swallowing nearly all who venture into it.

Bibiane Champagne is a young, twenty-something businesswoman – the owner of several thriving clothing boutiques in downtown Quebec. She is a carefree girl, not avoiding fun, alcohol, drugs, and casual sex. She has a BMW, an apartment with a beautiful view, and… a problem. She finds herself in an unwanted pregnancy that could hinder her from leading the life she’s accustomed to. We meet her during an abortion procedure. Bibiane is not sure if her decision is right. She is supported by a more experienced friend who has undergone several similar procedures, losing count. To forget about what she did, Bibiane decides to immerse herself in the whirlpool of revelry. After an alcohol-fueled party, she gets into her car. On her way home, she hits a man – a Norwegian sailor. He manages to get up, but dies moments after reaching his apartment. The girl learns about this a few days later.

Denis Villeneuve tells the story of a woman, whose decision to abort an unborn child leads her to the edge of the abyss in an absolutely raw and ascetic way. This sets off a chain of unpredictable events, the direct consequence of which is the death of another person. Unable to cope with the situation, haunted by guilt after the sailor’s death, Bibiane erases any traces that could testify against her. More importantly, they could also remind her of the entire incident. It seems inevitable that repercussions will follow her actions, so we await the consequences. In an act of desperation to get rid of her car, she pushes it off the dock. Unfortunately, with someone inside. It is a turning point for both the film and the protagonist. We know that if she manages to surface, her life will change, standing on the threshold that will determine her existence. She emerges from this confrontation victorious – transformed, knowing what she must do next.

In the next unexpected turn, at the funeral home where the sailor’s body was cremated, she meets his son, with whom she accidentally strikes up a conversation. Swept away by currents of an unknown vortex, she first ends up at the Norwegian’s workplace and then at his home. We don’t know what the guilt-ridden woman is plotting. We see surprising effects. Maelström, in an unpretentious way, shows what escapes us in everyday life. Lives of different, seemingly unrelated people are interdependent, intertwined like threads of the same fabric. The death of one, just like the flap of a butterfly’s wings in one part of the world, causes a hurricane in another, disrupting an infinite chain of interdependencies whose impact cannot be predicted. The woman spends the night with the sailor’s son; not in bed, but while organizing his father’s belongings. A thread of understanding is established between them, or perhaps a feeling that, for understandable reasons, Bibiane fears.

The conclusions drawn from this situation are surprising. Here is a woman who twice commits murder, harming herself first and then a completely unknown person, yet she gains love from the person most affected by her actions, a person who should hate her. Before this happens, however, the girl unknowingly does something that will have consequences – she saves someone’s life. Is it redemption through atonement for the committed sin? Life for a life? Or perhaps, sometimes, death is necessary to understand what is important to us or to find what we were unaware of missing?

Maelström is a film that overtly references the achievements of European cinema; both simple and complex at the same time. Denis Villeneuve tackles the serious topic of self-awareness and responsibility for one’s actions, but does so in a way that prevents his message from being taken entirely seriously. The film’s narrator is a… fish. The prologue begins with a shot in a fish slaughterhouse (if such a thing exists), which in terms of color, lighting, and especially the surreal atmosphere, seems to be lifted straight from Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s films. It could easily fit into The City of Lost Children. Moreover, this impression is further intensified by the language (French) spoken by the characters and an undeniable association with one of the characters from The City… – Irvin – a disembodied brain speaking with the voice of Jean-Louis Trintignant. Since the fish – narrator also appears in the epilogue (uttering a sentence reminiscent of Monty Python), this symbolically closes the image in the parentheses of conventionality.

These directorial techniques (of which there are many more in the film) create a constant feeling that we are being told, “look, but remember that this is just a fictional story.” Despite addressing a very serious topic, the film is not devoid of a wry sense of humor, reminiscent at times of the Coen Brothers’ films. Stylistically, the film also significantly deviates from the patterns to which American cinema has accustomed us: a strongly non-linear plot, a small number of dialogues, occasional comments on black screens reminiscent of silent films. An interesting element of the whole is the music, which in almost every scene remains in opposition to the image, creating an extraordinary perceptual dissonance in the viewer, as if the deliberate lack of coherence between the musical accompaniment and what we see on the screen.

Maelström is a film about the complexity of human life, the forces that guide it, the existence of which we may not even be aware of, and about the price that sometimes must be paid to discover it. Is it worth it? Everyone will find out at their own risk.