Maelstrom (French)

Denis Villeneuve’s French-Canadian “Maelstrom” is narrated by a fish. Why? Why not!

Actually, it sort of makes sense. The sly, understated morality play about guilt and the value of human life frequently comes back to water as a symbol, and the death of a fishmonger figures prominently in the plot.

Our scaly host introduces his tale as “a very pretty story.” Cut to an abortionist’s office, where we are treated to a rather graphic gynecological episode as Bibiane (Marie-Josee Croze) has an abortion. She’s a promiscuous gal, we soon learn, though this is her first visit to the office; her best friend (Stephanie Morganstern) has had two — “no, three,” she absent-mindedly corrects herself.

Bibiane feels some guilt and some residual morning sickness over the event, though her pal tells her not to. Guilt is useless, she says. What’s done is done. One nigh while driving in the rain, Bibiane hits the aforementioned fish guy with her car. Panicked, she leaves, unseen. The man later dies, and Bibiane realizes she’s responsible.

Now more guilty than ever, Bibiane can hardly cope with life. She leaves her job at a clothing store. She grows distant from her friends. Seeking to elude capture, she tries to push her car into the ocean, an act which turns into a last-minute half-hearted suicide attempt, too.

After she emerges, she meets Evian (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), who turns out to be the son of the dead man (whose murder was unsolved). They become lovers, but Bibiane still harbors terrible remorse, now complicated by her love for someone who, if he knew her secret, might reject her.

The film makes great use of music, particularly with the exaggeratedly operatic and bombastic strains heard when something especially dramatic happens. Villeneuve seems to take his subject matter seriously, but not without a certain healthy whimsy.

Some elements of the story are curiously unnecessary, however. Bibiane is revealed to be the daughter of someone famous, but that relates very little to the central theme. She is involved with her brother in some kind of business, too, but that also introduces more questions than it answers.

But the overall story is one of intriguing insight and emotion, well-acted by the cast and ambitiously directed by Villeneuve.

B (1 hr., 28 min.; French with English subtitles; R, some harsh profanity, strong nudity and sexuality, some gore; in French with English subtitles.)