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[whitespace] Fish Story

'Maelstrom' watches a woman fall apart, then puts her back together again

By Richard von Busack

BY DRESSING UP a standard abortion-is-murder plot as an art film, the Canadian import Maelstrom deserves some cold admiration as a tricky piece of work. Avant-garde traces adorn this piece--most arresting are those moments, as if outtakes from the Caro-Jeunet film Delicatessen, of a filthy, grease-stained troll of a fishmonger hacking away at big dead fish. The diseased-looking creature narrates the story and lays down its motto: "She who kills will be killed!" Quebec cinema has a small but proud tradition of the bizarre and surreal (everything from Lillies to Leolo), but the borrowed plumage--or rather, scales--stands out here.

Yet Maelstrom was a popular movie in Canada: the story of a chic, rich girl with a chic, rich name, Bibi Champagne (Marie-Josée Croze, the best part of the film), who has an abortion. Her refusal to grieve for the fetus--a refusal encouraged by her hardhearted best friend (Stephanie Morgenstern), who's had three or four abortions herself--leads Bibi to hard partying, hard drinking and a hit-and-run accident.

Director-writer Denis Villeneuve isn't pressing the point. He's merely suggesting that abortion is the resort of people with troubled relationships with their parents and that abortion may be murder--nothing fanatical in that, is there? He does include a line deploring the kind of fanatics who shoot abortionists, but his prejudices are clear, no matter how he obscures them: check the close-up of the plastic tubes carrying the uterine blood and tissue into the suction pump, an image he rhymes later with a close-up of a discarded fish on the street squashed by a car wheel.

Another problem with the film's implications is that Bibi was a wreck before she had the abortion. Would having a child help restore her to clarity? The real point Villeneuve may be making is that life replenishes itself in the sea. This idea is better indicated in a scene where a handsome Norwegian fisherman--the film's love interest, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, who has the watery name Evian--prepares to toss his father's cremated ashes down a barroom toilet, on the theory that the sea refuses no rivers.

What starts as a candid look at a woman falling apart floats into watery romance accompanied by "Good Morning, Starshine" from Hair. The sugary tune clashes with the original soundtrack by Pierre Desrochers, which is reminiscent of the music of the cobalt-bomb mass of the disfigured mutants in Beneath the Planet of the Apes. All an all an interesting approach, but if this film were a fish, you'd throw it back.

Maelstrom (Unrated; 83 min.), written and directed by Denis Villeneuve, cinematography by André Turpin and starring Marie-Josée Croze, Stephanie Morgenstern and Jean-Nicolas Verreault, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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Web extra to the May 16-22, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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