Writer-director Coline Serreau's Chaos is two films in one. The picture is one part pure farce and one part gender warfare. For the purposes of comedy, a love-struck fortysomething man will sit by a phone and mindlessly scratch the stuffing out of an arm chair while waiting for his lover to call. For the purposes of indictment, a father will instruct his son to locate fulfillment in work rather than love because women are two minutes of pleasure and years of hassle. Passages in this picture and its overall lack of balance will definitely offend some viewers, and its clashing tones keep it from feeling well-constructed and whole. But you never know where it's going, and you keep watching with interest till the final credits.
An indication of Chaos' stylistic mix appears at the outset. An obviously prosperous Parisian couple move about their spacious apartment at light speed. They share the same space but seem to occupy it in different dimensions. They are husband and wife, but nonetheless oblivious to each other. Then, on their way to dinner in their late-model car, they are confronted by a terrified young woman who looms up out of the dark and begs that they give her a ride. In response, they lock their doors. Before the husband can pull away, three male thugs snatch the young woman by the hair, smash her face against the car's windshield until the glass is smeared with blood, then throw her to the ground and stomp her into unconsciousness. The wife wants to call the police and an ambulance, but the husband orders her not to and drives directly to a car wash to scrub the blood and flesh off his vehicle.
The husband is Paul Vidal (Vincent Lindon), his wife, Héléne (Catherine Frot). He's a business executive, and she works in publishing. They have a son, Fabrice (Aurelien Wiik), who is ostensibly a college student though in actuality he's a perambulating gland. He doesn't really care a thing about either of his two beautiful girlfriends, Florence (Chloe Lambert) and Charlotte (Marie Denarnaud), but he's always leaping from sexual congress with one to dive into the same with the other. Fabrice is so outrageously self-centered, he doesn't bother to mask his impatience about being delayed from joining his friends even when told that his parents' marriage is dissolving. Of course, Paul shouldn't be surprised at Fabrice's callousness, for Paul is just as cold to his own long-suffering mother (Line Renaud).
The young woman who is beaten and left for dead is a prostitute named Noémie (Rachida Brakni). Her attackers are pimps in a vast crime organization. At first we presume she's committed some minor act of defiance and has been made an example for other streetwalkers. But Noémie has a complicated back story, and as we learn it, she moves from being a device for illustrating the Vidals' inhumanity to the centerpiece in the film's increasingly complicated (and not entirely convincing) narrative. As an act of penance, Héléne visits Noémie in the hospital and begins to assist in Noémie's remarkably rapid recovery from a coma and complete paralysis. Noémie thinks Héléne is her nurse, and well she might, since the real nurses attend to her with more indifference than concern.
Noémie, we discover in a long flashback, has lived a life of incredible hellishness and improbable adventure. Snatched away from her loving Algerian mother at age 12, she was forced to provide maternal care for three younger siblings in the French household of her brutal father. She ran away at age 15 when her father prepared to sell her for 20,000 francs as the fourth wife of a middle-age Algerian man who first checks her teeth the way a horse trainer might inspect a brood mare. But she escapes from one kind of nightmare into something worse. Captured by agents of the prostitution ring, she is "trained" by weeks of serial rape, eight times a day and more, addicted to heroin and then forced onto the street as a money-making machine.
One will recall Nancy Allen's turn in Blow Out as Noémie claws her way from sidewalk tart to classy call girl with a canny eye for the undervalued stock. But like almost everything in this movie, her transformation is too swift and far more willed by the story's creator than earned in careful character construction.
Eventually, Chaos becomes a French version of Thelma and Louise, with its two very different heroines on the lam and at odds with all malekind. Along the way, the picture produces scenes that will probably infuriate Muslims and annoy any man who might take Serreau's portrait of the masculine gender seriously. Western men are either brutes or hapless horny toads. Muslim men are monsters. I'm willing to laugh at the former, but in the inflamed world of the moment, I'm made uncomfortable by the one-dimensional depiction of the latter.
- Thelma and Louise en Franais: Housewife Hlne (Catherine Frot, right) befriends prostitute Nomie (Rachida Brakni) in the French Film Festival's presentation of Chaos.