Denis Villeneuve’s second film, Maelström from 2000, continues to explore the director’s interest in car accidents as a basis for character studies into women that work in fashion and do substances hard. And by leading with that, one may think that this film sounds like a repeat of August 32nd on Earth. But it isn’t.
Whereas that film had been about a young woman trying to get pregnant, this film opens with its lead character Bibiane Champagne (cool name, by the way) getting an abortion. And after that, she gets into a car accident where she accidentally kills a man and later becomes romantically involved with his son.
I didn’t go into this film expecting much of a relationship between Maelström and August 32nd on Earth. And ultimately, they do stand on their own. Still, I feel like by comparing them, I’m able to appreciate both of them more for their differences from one another.
While I don’t feel as vibrant for this film as I have for Villeneuve’s later filmography, I appreciate it in the same vein as his first film. So basically, I would only recommend it to those who enjoy French Arthouse if you get what I mean by that. And if that applies to you, I would recommend watching August 32nd on Earth first and then Maelström as an unofficial warm vs cold thematic duology of films. Kind of like Hereditary and Midsommar is a cold vs. warm film duology about cults.
So allow me to compare and contrast. August 32nd on Earth was a film that looked consistently bright, hot and dry that used deserts as a motif. That motif ultimately represented sex, fertility and life. In comparison, Maelström is dark, cold and wet and uses rushing water as its motif. And that motif meant death.
August 32nd on Earth had been about a couple that didn’t get together due to tragedy. However, Maelström is about a couple that gets together despite a disaster.
Simone was a photographer and former model in the fashion world who was a self-made person considered valuable in her industry who chose to leave it behind. She’s a woman who becomes afraid of death and decides to live her life without regrets. Whereas Bibi is born into the fashion world and forced out of it due to incompetence. And she’s pretty suicidal as well, testing the universe multiple times to deem whether or not her life is truly worth continuing.
And both films end with characters making immoral decisions that don’t really harm anyone, and the implication is that only happiness is achieved in the long run. The movies ask, “what difference does it make?” And in turn, this makes the audience uncomfortable.
This film was edited by Richard Comeau this time. I said previously that Leblond’s work on August 32nd on Earth felt kinetic and auteur. Comeau’s editing for this feels more conventional this time which I preferred. Around the middle of the movie, it becomes apparent that the film is being conveyed semi anachronically. I’m aware that Comeau returns for Villeneuve’s next film Polytechnqiue so I’ll be curious to see if that is something he does again.
Even though I say this film feels a bit more conventional, and I think overall, it’s marginally more inviting than 32nd on Earth, especially when it comes to their endings, there’s one aspect of this film that may make others feel otherwise.
So the story has a narrator. And that narrator is a… talking fish getting chopped up by a seafood butcher.
I question what that was supposed to add to the film exactly.
The film tries to make it somewhat relevant by having Bibi kill a fisherman, and seafood is a recurring symbol. And when the fish finishes telling the story, he starts talking about the meaning of life before finally getting his head cut off mid-sentence, and that could have something to do with Bibi realising nothing matters.
But ultimately, I found it to be out of place. The scenes felt more in line with a fantasy film Guillermo Del Toro would have made. Not in a drama film. But it was tolerable enough, and the actual movie within that framing device wasn’t ruined by it at all.