Chaos (2001)

"Good"

Chaos (2001) Review


Coline Serreau's Chaos is never quite sure of what it wants to be. The story of a Parisian woman who becomes involved with a prostitute fleeing a gang of pimps, the film could easily be summarized as a cat-and-mouse thriller. On the other hand, it's also the comical story of the same woman's bumbling husband and son, who - once she takes off on the lam with her new hooker companion - can't perform even the simplest household tasks without female supervision. And yet, more than anything else, it's a social drama about seemingly powerless women fighting back against a male-dominated society that physically and psychologically beats them into submissive roles. Wildly careening between crime drama, French farce, and woman's picture, the film frequently seems to be on the verge of splitting at the seams. But even if Chaos is hampered by a desire to be all things to all people, Serreau's nimble touch bestows this schizophrenic genre pastiche with an infectiously zany verve.

Hélène's (Catherine Frot) loveless marriage to Paul (Vincent Lindon) comes to a head when, while returning home from an evening out on the town, a hysterical hooker (Rachida Brakni, in a mesmerizing debut performance) throws herself on the hood of their car while attempting to escape a trio of savage attackers. Instead of trying to save the woman, Paul instinctively locks the doors, thus allowing the men to finish dishing out their brutal beating. When the assailants are done, Paul - a paragon of twenty-first century male insensitivity - is more interested in cleaning his windshield of prostitute blood than tending to the savagely beaten girl lying next to his shiny new sedan.

Paul's callous inaction, however, is the last straw for Hélène, who promptly abandons her husband and son Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik) - chauvinists who believe that women are primarily useful for sex, cooking, and ironing (in that order) - and takes up residence in the hospital where the injured streetwalker, Noémie, now lies comatose. Hélène dedicates herself to nursing the girl back to health, but soon finds that the men who brought Noémie to the brink of death are intent on finishing the job. Desperate to protect her newfound charge, Hélène helps Noémie escape the clutches of her pursuers, and the two take temporary refuge at the seaside home of Paul's oft-neglected mother. Once she is fully recovered, Noémie recounts her miserable life story to Hélène, a tale that includes her father's attempt to sell her to a wealthy Algerian, her strung-out time on the streets trading sex for money, and her use of stock-market savvy and feminine wiles to con a dying millionaire out of all his money. Noémie and Hélène, although forced to endure different types of male-propagated suffering, are clearly kindred spirits.

As the two women plot their revenge against those who have done them wrong, Chaos' elaborate story begins to resemble Serreau's anxious digital video camerawork and frantic cross-cutting, which reaches an apex of high-flying nervous energy during the extended flashback sequence in which Noémie narrates her ludicrously convoluted past to Hélène. But the recurrently absurd shifts in tone, rather than sabotaging the narrative's cohesiveness, instead give the film a dissonant, madcap energy that does much to smooth over the screenplay's two-dimensional characterizations of women as victims (or sly feminist avengers) and men as egotistical dolts whose subjugation of women masks a desperate reliance on them. Serreau takes pleasure in launching into narrative flights of fancy - there's nary a plausible moment in Noémie's stock-trading escapades - and it is the film's greatest asset that the story doesn't tidily conform to the rigorously logical demands of reality.

Still, for all its inspired lunacy, Chaos can't stop harping on the narrow-minded idea that the only relationships between men and women are functional business transactions, where the pimp/whore dynamic is synonymous with that of husband/wife and boyfriend/girlfriend. As a result, the film's commentary on women's secondary position in modern society holds no resonance; it's as unbelievably cartoonish, and yet not nearly as pleasurable, as the film's humorous subplots (the best of which involves the two-timing Fabrice getting his just deserts at the hands of his fiancé and paramour). The unreasonably drawn out finale finds everyone getting what they deserve (for good or ill) and learning some pat lessons about life and love. But the fun isn't in Serreau's heavy-handed affirmations of estrogen power - it's in the story's restless, realism-be-damned chaos.

Chaos -- insane!!!



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