Review by Reagen Sulewski
January 14, 2002
Let's get this out of the way: This is a film narrated by a fish. Multiple fish, as a matter of fact, as they keep getting chopped up, although they all share the same voice. Even with that fact, it's really not that strange a film. After opening with this fish's monologue (I believe it's a tuna) and a brief lesson on Norwegian folklore, we get to the story of Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze, bearing a bit of a resemblance to Neve Campbell and Maura Tierney).
To the outside world, her life appears incredibly successful; she is young, pretty and the owner of a chain of dress shops. This, however, is just a façade. The financiers are moving behind the scenes to remove her from her stores for mismanagement. Her romantic life is composed of random affairs, and she's just had her first abortion in the first scene of the movie. The maëlstrom of the title certainly applies here, although director Dennis Villeneuve thankfully avoids (almost) any tortured symbolism. Finally, while driving home drunk from a club, she strikes and kills a Norwegian fishmonger without even realizing it.
The notion of fate and circumstance plays heavily in this film, as seemingly unrelated events in the film mirror and double back on each other in surprising ways. At one point in the film (which I will leave as a surprise to the viewer), the flow of time splits to show how a minor comment sets the main plot in action, that of a budding romance between Bibi and the fishmonger's son, Evian. That the device does not seem like a gimmick is a credit to the script (besides, it's already got a pretty big one).
Why does Bibi risk a relationship with Evian, putting her close to being discovered? Guilt, most likely, a feeling going unfulfilled after her accident (circumstances of the accident make it nearly unsolvable). It's a perverse way of taking responsibility for the life that she's taken. There's an interesting scene where the two of them go through his father's belongings, a very explicit way of having Bibi take stock of what she's done. The romance seems at one point to be over, but then Bibi does something that's not exactly shocking but brash and unexpected, which sets in motion another round of coincidences.
Visually, the film is gorgeously shot, with grim darkness and red for the dungeon-like narration scenes, and strangely muted yet dazzling blues and greens in the "real world". Some scenes are overexposed, creating brilliant white glare that projects a kind of mental haze for the characters. Some other scenes have a nightmarish, almost hallucinogenic characteristic when needed. Evian's introduction is particularly remarkable, with a fish-eye reveal of a large dam. A nice use is also made of some of its Montreal locations, although they're not truly crucial to the story. Music also plays a wonderful role in the film, with broad strokes of Viking opera serving as punctuation notes throughout the story, along with several well-placed and sarcastically-used songs.
The glue holding this all together, of course, is Croze's performance; she's on-screen for nearly every scene and has to do most of the heavy lifting, acting-wise. Ranging from brooding disillusionment (during an interview for a young-entrepreneur article, she's barely motivated enough to respond with one-sentence answers) to grief, despair, hopefulness and cautious joy, it's a testament to her abilities that it never seems like an actor's exercise. That's she's extremely easy to look at is no debit, either.
While still fulfilling the requirement that all Canadian films must be about sex and/or death, this film isn't afraid to stop and lighten the mood at times. As a part of looking at the quiet moments, wonderful payoffs are to be found for careful viewers. Random strangers reappear in the film multiple times, affecting the plot. A clever bit of narration foreshadows the true identity of a song used as a lullaby (the joke will be ruined for those who speak Norwegian, but it's thankfully not ruined by subtitles). While Villeneuve wants us to consider the actions and circumstances of the characters carefully, he doesn't want us to take the film too seriously...did I mention the piscine narrator? Call it Kieslowski-little; a film that tackles broad themes of regret, love and redemption but that's not afraid to poke fun at its own devices. Your enjoyment of the film will likely vary on your appreciation of the serendipitous moments in life. This film was nominated for a deserved ten Genie Awards (Canada's Oscars) in 2001, winning five, including Best Picture. Hitting US screens after a long delay, this film deserves to be seen as one of the examples of what a fine, thoughtful film can do.