The Cinema of Loneliness: Maelstrom (2000)

A column article by: Nick Hanover

Celluloid International is a series of multi-part essays on different cinematic movements across the globe, some well-known, others less so. We're kicking it off with Nick Hanover's examination of what he's termed "the Cinema of Loneliness," a theory that Canadian film, because of the geography of its home, is predominantly concerned with isolation, whether it's of the emotional or physical variety. Earlier versions of these first three essays were originally published at Spectrum Culture.

 The Cinema of Loneliness: An Exploration of the Emotional Center of Canadian Film

Part One: Maelström and the Loneliness and Isolation of Modernity

It is impossible to narrow down any country’s collected film output into one questionable emotion. But criticism is by nature a field in which ideas that defy description must be expressed in neat and tidy terms. Directors who control a large portion of their works are auteurs, though many that are labeled as such do not write their films. Nearly every New Wave was built on the continuation of older trends, often from countries outside of the one in question: witness France’s love affair with Hollywood film noir, which climaxed in the ’60s with their respective New Wave, or the way Hong Kong action cinema permanently altered the DNA of Hollywood action blockbusters. Even the almighty film noir is such a loose term that fierce debate continues to rage over what is or isn’t noir and whether there can be such a thing as the neo equivalent of it.

Humans by nature like organization and labels, no matter how loosely what’s being labeled fits into the structure. But sometimes genres or scenes or nations can fit into the right tag the majority of the time. Even if the tag doesn’t perfectly describe the work in question, one knows exactly what is meant when the term French New Wave is thrown out just as cinema verite instantly brings to mind a certain aesthetic.

Canadian art is no different, though it is an unfortunately neglected national scene much of the time. Dwarfed by their peers to the south, the artists of Canada have lived a history of isolation, crafting works bolstered by a government with a deep passion and protection of the arts. With a government willing to fund their projects, Canadian artists have managed to make works with little interference, the only real catch being that the system only helps them as far as their borders reach. Eschewing most of what has come to be expected in America to please audiences, Canadian filmmakers in particular have come to be known for their independence and devotion to their aesthetic. Where else could a Guy Maddin or Atom Egoyan craft well-budgeted art project after art project?

And though these filmmakers have indeed found audiences beyond Canada’s borders, their works are almost never blockbusters, nor do they explicitly aim to be, instead focusing on the art of cinema itself. Whether because of the isolation allowed by the government or through the isolation presented by the environment of the nation itself, Canadian cinema like its music has had a long history of devotion to similarly isolated, withdrawn characters. The cinema of Canada, appropriately, has been a cinema of loneliness, populated by characters who are often stunted or socially awkward, haunted by events or mistakes or misdeeds, lost even when they find others like themselves.


Denis Villeneuve’s 2000 work Maelström is an excellent starting point for a study of this loneliness as well as other trademarks of Canadian film, most notably its magical realist elements. The film’s protagonist, Bibiane (Marie-Josee Croze), is hopelessly adrift in life. She moves from interest to interest, unwilling to tether herself completely to any one devotion. The maelström of the title is her life, which we are introduced to as she is in the process of getting an abortion. Bibiane abhors permanence. She has led her business to the state of ruin, despite the vague connection to fame she has from her unrevealed parents. The man responsible for the pregnancy is never clearly revealed, some indications are given that perhaps she doesn’t even know who he is, her only communications about the procedure she has endured instead with someone who may be her brother, though this too is vague.

The vague nature of the plot is by no means an accident, Villeneuve instead clearly fascinated with the idea of a protagonist that the viewer knows little or nothing about, all the better to make one understand that Bibiane herself doesn’t even seem to know who she is. Further complicating things, the only illuminations in the film come from a prehistoric fish about to be butchered in a fishery. The fish seems to have some level of omnipotence where the plot is concerned, but he is bitter about it, since it obviously will not help him escape his own fate. This bitterness pervades his dialogue, his mantra being that he who kills shall be killed. This fish, perhaps once a great predator in the home of his ocean, is going to die, and the one who killed him will die and so on, forever going. The only humor the fish partakes in is the death Bibiane unwittingly brings to a fishmonger, perpetuating the cycle the fish is intimately acquainted with.

But even this death is vague, unclear. The man leaves a bar drunkenly as Bibiane leaves a party just as drunkenly. The man walks across the street as Bibiane drives down it, in no condition to be behind a wheel. She hits him, but is unsure of whether she has actually hit something or if her intoxication is clouding her senses. When she returns to the scene of her crime, the man is gone, further confusing things, long ago having crawled into his apartment to die in the comfort of his sofa. As he dies, desperately alone, she returns to her home, equally alone, suffering in the morning from the guilt of a crime she can’t even be sure happened, the only evidence the blood and fish scales on the bumper of her car.

Villeneuve is following a long tradition of Canadian filmmakers with his plot, as estranged as it may seem from reality. Early Canadian film often focused on the plight of those living on the Canadian frontier, whether the Inuits of Nanook of the North or any of the nature scene shorts depicting the trappers. The frontier life was seen to be a desolate one, its population separated from each other and the growing cities by miles and miles. To die on the frontier could mean that your body would never be found, no one even sure if you had perished or if you had just retreated further into the wilderness. Villeneuve has found this concept to still exist in modern times, despite the density of Canada’s urban centers. The fishmonger dies alone in his home and it takes days for anyone to even notice, his coworkers merely assuming he had taken some time off. Similarly, when Bibiane attempts to kill herself by driving off a pier, she thinks she could suffer the same fate, her friends more than likely assuming she’d been in a depressive slump and isolated rather than truly missing.

For Villeneuve, the loneliness and isolation of modern times is just as much a detachment from humanity as what the trappers of frontier times felt. To be lonely in the modern world is to reject the myriad ways technology has allowed us to communicate by retreating inward just as to be lonely in the old world meant to retreat outward to the woods and wild. To overcome it takes either a willingness to return to the center or to accept what fate tosses your way. For Bibiane, it becomes a little of both. The guilt of her actions leads her to attend the lonely funeral of the fishmonger where the only guest is his son, a modern day frontiersman, a diver who works primarily in the wilds of the Yukon, where he has nearly no friends and certainly no long term lovers. This son knew nearly nothing of his father except his profession, the two willingly isolated from one another. The father chose to be a fisherman, willing to die in the sea and perhaps expecting it. The son chose to be a diver, also willing to die in the sea, also expecting it. Neither had much to live for, their very existence more a dare than anything. By meeting the son, Bibiane gains an understanding of true isolation, and slowly, but unwillingly, opens herself to him, knowing that eventually she’ll have to tell him why she was really at the funeral.

Perhaps the knowledge that she’d have to tell him and that by default this would inevitably force him out of her life allows her to be more open with him, since that knowledge meant she could continue to be alone. But when it backfires and he doesn’t leave her, the two characters realize that though they can’t escape their loneliness, they can be together with others who share it. To the fish, the message is that everyone is alone and by nature that means no one can ever really be alone. He will die and continue the cycle that brought him to this life in the first place as will the one who killed him and so on, forever going. From a critical perspective, the message can be seen as a willingness for Canadian filmmakers to revel in the loneliness of their nation; unlike the boisterous Americans, they aren’t seeking acceptance or popularity, they instead want to explore what living in such an isolated, harsh environment says about their identity. Were their ancestors drawn here for the isolation or has the isolation become a part of them?

Next week: Guy Maddin and The Saddest Music in the World...

When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticoand you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover

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