To be in a maelström means to be caught in a turbulent, often violent, situation. The word implies lack of control or direction in the midst of chaos. And this is certainly what has happened to the film’s main character Bibiane (Marie-José Croze). She is 25 years old, runs three boutiques of women’s clothing, has an expensive apartment, many friends, and a world famous mother. She also has no idea who she really is, parties a bit too much, takes too many drugs, and is profoundly unhappy. We first see Bibi lying on her back in an abortion clinic. When the procedure is over, she calls someone and quietly says she has taken care of “it.”
This is the beginning of a downward spiral into a pit of pain, guilt, and self-destructive behaviour during which Bibi must give herself permission to live. At least, this is what the narrator of the film tells us. The joke is that the narrator is a fish. In the opening sequence of the film, it is lying on a bloody table, waiting to be beheaded and gutted. In the background, a man is sharpening a knife. The Fish tells the audience that he wants to take advantage of his last few minutes to tell us a “pretty little story.” What unfolds is not a deathbed confession, but a dark comedy about life and death and how to find meaning in both.
As Bibiane drives herself home from the abortion clinic, she passes by an accident. A fish truck has spilled part of its load on a city street. The driver and his helpers are trying desperately to shovel the crushed ice and fresh fish up as quickly as possible. But, drivers are impatient and begin to drive over the mess. The Fish tells us that Bibiane is “going on a long journey to reality.” Apparently, this will involve a healthy measure of blood and death. But the Fish is a calming, almost reassuring, presence in this story, serving as a sort of comic relief to the very real psychological and physical pain experienced by Bibiane and others.
Bibiane’s friend, Claire (Stephanie Morgenstern) looks after her in the first days after the abortion, stroking her and singing a gentle song that her Norwegian grandmother taught her. When Bibi asks what the words mean, Claire says they don’t matter. The Fish, who is unsentimentally committed to the truth, interrupts the action at this point to say that this is actually an awful song and to hint that this particular matter is “to be continued.” Claire then quotes Norwegian writer, Bjorn Magnusson, who wrote that, “All human actions are manifestations against death.” Claire, who has had two or three abortions (she can’t remember how many), tells Bibi that guilt is non-productive, that she needs to simply carry on living. Bibi is not so sure. She vomits, she can’t eat, she neglects her work.
Bibi and her brother Philippe (Bobby Beshro) have inherited a great deal of money from their mother, who was an icon in the cosmetics world. Together they run a string of women’s clothing stores and other enterprises. Philippe loves his sister, but he is fed up with her inattention to business. She is losing money at a great rate and he is going to have to start closing her stores. Bibi is in no fit state to think any of this through. She goes to a bar, drinks too much, gets into her car and, sometime in the evening, nods off behind the wheel, striking a pedestrian. After she passes by, the man staggers into his apartment and dies sitting upright at his kitchen table. The man Bibi has killed is a Norwegian fish plant worker going home from his shift. The Fish malevolently intones, “He who has killed will be killed.” Later he tells the story of how he was caught. It seems the Norwegians use musical waves to lure fish into the nets. The Fish was caught with a tune composed by Grieg.
Bibiane is too drunk to be entirely sure what has happened. The next day she goes down to look at her car. She is horrified to find what looks like some hair and skin, which she quickly forks into a nearby garbage can. There follow many scenes during which she tries to wash herself and the car clean. Indeed water forms a motif throughout the film. All action sequences are cut with images of the slightly rippled surface of a large body of water. The continuity of water, its power to give life and take it away is an understated, yet ever-present, message of the film. Bibiane is desperate to find out what happened, yet frightened of the answer. She searches the newspaper for obituary notices; but, since the man staggered off the street and into his own home, his body is not found for some time.
Meanwhile, Bibiane tries to make sense of her life. She is invited to a photo shoot by a magazine, called Future. At the session, she finds that they want her to dress up as her mother, that they want her to let her mother come out through the expression on her face. The interviewer asks what it is like to be the child of a myth. Her face freezes. Is this her future? To be confused with her mother, never to be free to be herself? She washes the make-up off her face, goes home, takes some drugs and goes out to a rave. She takes a complete stranger home to bed. Waking up the next day, she is disgusted.
Bibiane finds herself sitting on a bench waiting for the subway. Beside her is a bored, tired-looking stranger. She tells him that she thinks she killed someone by accident and wonders if she should turn herself in. “Does anyone else know?” he asks. “No,” she replies. “Well, it doesn’t change a thing, then. Don’t tell anyone,” he says. “Some day you will die, too.” Bibiane’s decision is to drive her car off the pier, going down with the car and having to decide while under the water whether to live or die.
The next day, Bibiane discovers the name of the person she has killed. She decides, in her first step towards responsibility, to attend his funeral, where she meets Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verrault) the man’s son. Evian has flown over from Norway where he works as a frogman. For the rest of the film, Bibiane must balance what she knows to be right against the consequences of telling the truth. A bittersweet ending to this torment leaves her at peace and the audience with one last piece of sage advice from the Fish, who warns that he will now reveal to us the secret of our existence, “You’re all….” Chop.
Maelström was Director Denis Villeneuve’s breakthrough film. It won 23 awards at Film Festivals around the world, including five Genies for Best Motion Picture (Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal), Best Actress (Marie-Josée Croze), Best Screenplay (Denis Villeneuve), Best Cinematography (André Turpin), and Best Direction (Denis Villeneuve), as well as nine Jutras for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Art Direction (Sylvain Gingras, Denis Sperdouklis), Best Editing (Richard Corneau), Best Screenplay, and Best Sound (Mathieu Beaudin, Gilles Corbeil, Louis Gignac).