Denis Villeneuve’s “Maelstrom” (2000)

Notable Festivals: Sundance, Berlin

In recent years, director Denis Villenueve has emerged as one of the most exciting filmmakers working in large-scale, big-budget studio filmmaking.  While he doesn’t quite command the box office like his generational cohort Christopher Nolan, he has nonetheless parlayed the appreciation of critics and a cult fan base into a similarly-showmanlike reputation wherein the release of a new Villeneuve film is regarded as a major cinematic event.  Our American-centric worldview would deign this period to have begun shortly after the release of his studio breakout, PRISONERS (2013), but the fact of the matter is that Villeneuve has been enjoying accolades since his very first feature was released in 1998. That film, AUGUST 32nd ON EARTH, told the story of a model trying to get pregnant by her best friend, and premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival before entering a home video black hole that persists to this day.  

During the production of that film, Villeneuve conceived of another idea, born of a nascent fascination with car accidents.  While he ultimately had to put it down, citing frustration over his difficulty in developing the project further, he nonetheless found the idea persistent enough to return to it a year later (2).  Titled MAELSTROM, the project seemed to present itself to Villenueve almost as a comedy (albeit a very dark one), whereas many people he gave the script to experienced actual nightmares (1). In crafting his story about a woman who rails against the absurdity of her fate and other cosmic coincidences, Villeneuve had discovered a truly unconventional story worth committing to film, and subsequently enlisted his AUGUST 32nd ON EARTH producer, Roger Frappier (working alongside Luc Vandal), to help make his outrageous vision a reality.

Taking place in Montreal, the epicenter of Villeneuve’s Quebec, MAELSTROM concerns the plight of Bibian Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze), a deeply-flawed protagonist who is introduced terminating her pregnancy— easily one of the more polarizing scenarios in which one could possibly establish a lead character.  In this context, the procedure is emblematic of her very troubled life. Bibian is a small business owner in Montreal whose enterprise is on the brink of collapse; what little success she’s experienced, however, stems less from her entrepreneurial spirit and more from her notoriety as a privileged child of a local celebrity.  Racked with guilt, depression, and a healthy dose of nihilism, she has turned to drugs, alcohol, and risky casual sex as coping mechanisms. In what could be considered her breakout role, Croze imbues this hot mess of a protagonist — who Villeneuve modeled after different women he had known, including a pathological liar (3) — with a beleaguered energy that continually isolates her from her environment and from others.  Indeed, her only friend in this bleak world is Stephanie Morgenstern’s Claire, a supportive friend who is nevertheless beginning to strain under the burden of Bibian’s friendship.  

This exceedingly brittle status quo is completely shattered one night when Bibian strikes an old man with her car and immediately drives off into the night.  Later on, she discovers that the man, a Norwegian fisherman, died from his wounds after staggering on foot all the way back to his apartment. As her guilt mounts to unbearable levels, she decides to commit suicide by driving her car off a tall dock and into the black water below.  When she ultimately lives, she comes to view the episode as a kind of spiritual and moral cleansing, and allows herself the blessing of moving on with her life. Villeneuve’s darkly absurdist plot, however, has different plans— by chance, she comes to make the acquaintance of the fisherman’s son, Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verrault), who has traveled to town to collect the ashes.  An instant connection forms between the two, compelling Evian to miss his plane back in favor of a romantic interlude at her apartment. The bizarre flow of fate and irony once again inserts itself, revealing that the small plane Evian was supposed to be on crashed, killing everyone onboard. As Evian takes to calling Bibian an “angel”, her guilt returns, with the promise — or threat — of a full-fledged reckoning between the terrible sins of her past and the hopeful future she’s only just begun building for herself.

MAELSTROM’s narrative may be rooted in grounded human drama, but Villeneuve’s visual interpretation of the plot’s pitch-black irony often approaches the realm of fantasy.  Indeed, it often plays like the bleakest of fairy tales. The story even has a storybook-style narrator, albeit in the twisted form of a dying fish on a butcher’s grisly chopping block in some underground dungeon taken straight out of a stylized snuff film.  Voiced by Pierre Lebeau, the animatronic puppet seems to possess an ancient omniscience, and can transfer its life essence from body to body as the butcher chops his way through a bucket of fish. This (very strange) conceit also manifests as a recurring visual motif throughout Biban’s story; Villenueve frequently populates his 35mm 1.85:1 frame with the sight of dead or dying fish flopping around on the road, or being run over by indifferent sedans.  Bodies of dark, churning water also appear throughout, emphasizing the fish’s isolation from their habitat even as they echo Bibian’s roiling internal tumult. The visual conceit of “the fish” continues on through MAELSTROM’s particular aesthetic approach, with director of photography André Turpin’s high-contrast, cold-skewing color palette evoking their chromatic appearance via strong blues & greens. Villeneuve and Turpin intentionally throttle the color red, making its occasional appearance all the more striking and unnatural.  Production designer Sylvain Gingras’ sleek, sterile sets complement this color scheme while allowing for lots of bright light, which Turpin subsequently overexposes to such a degree as to create an overpowering daytime nightmare not unlike the onset of a migraine. Editor Richard Comeau makes order of Villeneuve’s primarily-handheld chaos, codifying MAELSTROM’s visual grammar as a series of close-up faces and whip pans that evoke Bibian’s emotional unmooring as well as her alienation from a modern urban nightmarescape that threatens to swallow her whole.  The film’s musical approach makes a pointed attempt at cruel irony, deploying a sprawling menagerie of eclectic needledrops that range from intense choral opera cues to cheery vintage pop. The end result is a soundtrack that primarily serves as narrative commentary in lieu of conveying a distinct mood.

Villeneuve’s deliberately-incongruous musical choices underscore the core message that informs MAELSTROM’s unique tone, which he describes as a “playful call to be responsible and to be careful” (4).  In his worldview, the modern world is beset by perils both physical and existential, and the best way to navigate this endless obstacle course is to cultivate a morbid sense of humor. Nowhere is this more evident than in one of MAELSTROM’s final moments, where the dying fish narrator, caught in an endless, seizing loop of death and consciousness, announces that he’ll now share with the audience the secret to life’s meaning— only to receive a final decapitation before he can get the words out.  This early iteration of Villeneuve’s thematic conceits, as relativity unformed as it is, bridges the gap between the self-described “psychodrama” affectations of his debut short REW FFW (1994) and the foreboding atmosphere of his later studio features. Though it is set against a modern, cosmopolitan backdrop, MAELSTROM abstractifies its Montreal setting into a malevolent dystopia that seems to actively conspire against Bibian, aiding and abetting her depression with its claustrophobic, industrial atmosphere.  Villeneuve achieves this through exaggerated interpersonal melodrama, as well as his lensing of locations in such a way as to emphasize isolation and alienation— wet streets littered with dead fish, cramped living quarters, sterile offices, and exteriors whose towering architectural elements dwarf the buzz of human activity below. While Montreal’s signature landmarks and culture are downplayed in favor of an admittedly generic cityscape, MAELSTROM nevertheless forms the foundation for the oppressive, imposing environments that populate Villeneuve’s subsequent filmography: the soggy Pennsylvanian suburbs of PRISONERS, the hostile slums of Mexico City in SICARIO, or the monolithic future LA of BLADE RUNNER 2049, to name just a few.

MAELSTROM would premiere on home turf, the Montreal World Film Festival, and was subsequently followed by a US premiere at Sundance and the FIPRESCI prize at Berlin.  Critics didn’t quite know what to make of Villeneuve’s transgressive fable, but there were enough champions for the film to land it several Genie Awards (now known as the Canadian Screen Awards), including the top prize for Best Motion Picture.  What happened afterward, however, was a development very much befitting the film’s dripping veneer of irony— Villeneuve was unhappy. Despite all the accolades and surging career momentum, he viewed MAELSTROM (and to the same extent, AUGUST 32ND ON EARTH) as artistic failures that didn’t live up to the high standards he had set for himself.  Subsequently, he embarked on a self-imposed sabbatical from filmmaking until he could make a film “he felt proud of” (1), and for the next nine years, he would stay home and raise his children. Villeneuve’s career could have rightly ended here, but the future had something else in store for the young filmmaker.

MAELSTROM is currently available on standard definition DVD via Image Entertainment.


Written by: Denis Villeneuve

Produced by: Roger Frappier, Luc Vandal

Director of Photography: André Turpin

Production Designer: Sylvain Gingras

Edited by: Richard Comeau

Music by: Pierre Desrochers


  • IMDB Trivia Page
  • Royer, Genevieve (15 September 2000). “Hooking a Story: Bad trout was the inspiration behind Denis Villeneuve’s film Maelstrom”. The Montreal Gazette. p. C1.

Howell, Peter (8 September 2000). “Review Fish hooks ; Quebec film ‘Maelstrom’ tells deep tale”. The Toronto Star. p. D02.


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