review by Elias Savada, 17 January 2003

In director-writer Coline Serreau's digital feature Chaos, French men are cinematic pond scum. No, it's not a Gallic-specific concept, per se, just happenstance that the filmmaker practices her craft on that part of the planet, where she gave birth in 1985 to the original Three Men and a Cradle (for which a sequel, 18 Years Later, is in production under her direction). As it turns out, men as a universal group are considerably worse off by the final reel. Women, a heretofore subservient gender in the Islamic and bourgeois worlds as depicted in this subtly humorous melodrama, are fully inclined to drain the stagnant, phallic waters from their lives, put the sting of a Dixie Chick or two back in their lives, and bask in their own gloriously feminist spotlight. You won't hear Helen Reddy pontificating on the soundtrack, but here is one film where women invincibly roar.

The utterly middle class life of businessman Paul Vidal (Vincent Lindon) and his compliant wife Hélène (Catherine Frot) becomes unraveled in the streets of Paris one weekend when an already badly beaten woman, begging for her life, is rebuffed by the callous husband and his seemingly indifferent spouse. He instinctively locks the car doors rather than give aid. After viewing the bloody assault by three fleet-footed thugs, Paul asks for a tissue, exits his vehicle and tends to his blood-spattered windshield, a glass that could have provided safety to the battered victim laying nearby. The couple and their apathy flee the scene as the police approach, Paul opting for a fresh car washing rather than heeding Hélène's plea to telephone for an ambulance.

In their frantic professional/personal world, the Vidals have no place for such unwanted accidents. He has his business to run, she's an obedient worker, wife, and mother to their ne'er-do-well son Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik). When Paul's mother (Line Renaud) arrives for her annual visit, Paul has no time for her either, rebuffing her with lies. Of course, Hélène endures the same evasive treatment from her son and his two-timing lifestyle.

Such is the unsporting "like father, like son" thread that Serreau drives into her audience with all the wry, satirical subtlety of a sledgehammer. Without reason, Hélène finds her conscience and tracks down the injured woman, who we learn through her well-scripted but excessively voiced-over back story, is a serious-minded, financial-savvy, high-priced call girl who has suffered years of torture and rape, kicked a smack habit, scammed a rich, old Swiss geezer and, briefly, her sadistic pimps, of hundreds of millions of dollars. Full circle, she ends up fleeing in fear for her life and being nearly run down by a car in Paris. This middle portion is the weakest part of the film, that perhaps would have been better served by repeating certain elements from a different point of view, as done in Run, Lola, Run or Doug Liman's Go.

While Hélène plays guardian angel to the comatose and then recovering victim, she ward offs annoying trivialities tossed at her by Paul and Fabrice. She plays vigilante for the immobile hooker, fighting back against the men threatening the 22-year-old prostitute. Further details reveal that six years earlier she escaped from an Algerian family of brutish brothers and a horrid, abusive father intent on pimping, er shipping, her back to Algeria as a child bride for 20,000 francs.

The last third of the film picks up with a greed-induced sting that finds a frazzled father and drop-out son in love with the same girl, the bad guys getting a proper comeuppance, a shipside rescue, and Hélène finding the better side of her mother-in-law.

The multiple story lines revolve around the dissolution between husband-wife, mother-son (over two generations), son-girlfriends, and father-daughter. It's quite a scorecard, and balancing atop the scale is the Thelma and Louise bond that grows between odd couple Hélène and Malika Tarek (or Noémie Totka as she now is known), and the strained relationship of the latter with her estranged younger sister Zora (Hajar Nouma). The comic repercussions track the Vidal relationships breaking down, with Hélène spending more time with her new friend and unplugging herself from the emotionally-vacant men in her life. Particularly amusing are the heartless lordships' escalating inabilities to cope with even the most mundane domestic responsibilities (finding a cheese grater, getting a suit ironed, unblocking the dishwasher, cleaning the sink, etc.) or doling out bad lonelyhearts advice("Love only exists in magazines.").

Serreau grabs the audience into the lively action with a constantly observing, hand-held camera and close-up action. You never feel more than a step or two away from the characters, particularly Frot, who imbues her role with a lovely, almost laissez-faire, confidence, and athlete-turned-actress Rachida Brakni giving a standout role as Noémie/Malika (which earned her a César award, the French equivalent of the Oscar, for Most Promising Actress). She has a very strong, expressive face and huge eyes that reflect the agony that has shaped her character. The film also received well-deserved nominations for Frot (Best Actress), Line Renaud (Supporting Actress), and two for Serreau (Best Film and Best Writing). The deft editing by Catherine Renault and intriguing score crafted by Ludovic Navarre excites you as more of the plotlines are revealed. There are many, many short scenes, all pushing the film along and either battering down the lame male characters (only the police get a fair shake) or showing off the feminine characters' intelligence. As for Lindon and Wiik's flaky, black sheep portrayals, only one word comes to mind: Disinheritance.

Chaos is smart. Real smart. Revenge can't get much sweeter than this.

Written and
Directed by:

Coline Serreau

Catherine Frot
Vincent Lindon
Rachida Brakni
Line Renaud
Aurélien WiikIvan Franek
Chloé Lambert

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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