Quirky Canadian film blends calm, chaos, and a talking fish

Canadian movies don't get the attention they deserve from viewers below the border, partly because their distributors lack big promotional bucks to compete with Hollywood advertising blitzes.

But the country's latest export has something to compensate: a fistful of Genie awards (the northern equivalent of Oscars) for best picture, director, actress, screenplay, and cinematography.

This doesn't mean "Maelström" is for everyone. It's a strange and quirky yarn, moving between deceptively calm scenes and episodes as tempestuous as its title.

This is business as usual for director Denis Villeneuve, whose earlier "August 32nd on Earth" showed tendencies toward David Lynch's brand of bizarre cinema. I'll put it this way: If you're in the mood for a melodrama narrated by talking fish, this is the movie for you.

The fishy tale focuses on Bibiane, a French-Canadian woman whose comfortable life - a thriving business, fun, and money to spare - starts to go sour while she's still shy of 30. Veering between riotous living and suicidal thoughts, she's sadly uncertain what her future holds.

Things get bleakest when she runs down a stranger with her car. Hope returns when she meets his grieving son, who likes her, but could turn against her if he discovers her connection with his late father.

"Maelström" would have more emotional power if it weren't decked out with so many self-conscious directorial touches: It's as if Villeneuve didn't trust his story and characters to impress us on their own.

The picture is deftly acted, though, especially by Marie-Josée Croze as the heroine and Stephanie Morgenstern as her close friend. And don't forget those narrating fish, who give the film jolts of energy when the plot starts to get ordinary. If there's a sequel, maybe they'll get a Genie of their own.

• Not rated; contains sex and violence.

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