New Yorker Films // 2001 // 109 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Byun (Retired) // February 24th, 2004
"A rousing and daring tale combining aspects of pulse-pounding melodrama with loopy battle-of-the-sexes comedy."
From French filmmaker Coline Serreau, best known for her 1985 hit Three Men and a Cradle that was remade in America as Three Men and a Baby, comes Chaos, a dark, sharp-edged comedy of the sexes.
A well-to-do, middle-aged Parisian couple is driving down a city street, en route to dinner. They are stopped by a young prostitute who throws herself frantically onto their car, pleading for help -- she is being pursued by a gang of thugs. The horrified couple respond by locking their doors, leaving the young woman at the mercy of her pursuers. They drive on in guilty silence, their blood-splattered windshield staring them in the face in silent rebuke.
The wife, Hélène (Catherine Frot, The Dinner Game), is consumed with remorse and tracks the battered woman, Malika (Rachida Brakni), to the hospital where she lies comatose. Hélène dedicates herself to nursing Malika back to health, to the consternation of her husband, Paul (Vincent Lindon), a smug, narcissistic boor who treats his elderly mother like an annoyance and is raising a son, Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik), even more selfish and spoiled than himself. Hélène spends nearly every waking hour by Malika's bedside, and upon her recovery the two women form an unlikely friendship.
Chaos starts out like a tense crime thriller, but soon transforms into a genre-hopping collision of feminist revenge fable, social satire, and sex comedy. A blurb on the DVD cover proclaims Chaos to be a blend of Run Lola Run and Thelma and Louise, and it's half right (I don't know where that reviewer found a connection between this film and Run Lola Run, except that both feature a young, slender female protagonist); Chaos is very much in the tradition of films like Thelma and Louise and The Color Purple, in which every male character is some combination of buffoon, sadist, lecher, and fool, and the downtrodden females throw off the yoke of male oppression and empower themselves, leaving the men floundering helplessly in their wake.
From Malika's Algerian father, who attempts to sell the teenage girl to an older man, to the lowlife pimps whose savage clutches she has recently escaped, there's nary a good word to be said about any of the men in this film. Still, though Chaos may be didactic and obvious in its programmatic manipulation of reality to suit Serreau's feminist agenda -- the outlandish resolution of this story reveals it to be very much a fairy tale rather than a realistic depiction of female oppression -- it's hard to dispute the validity of Serreau's grievances given the prevalence, even in these so-called enlightened times, of sexist oppression and violence against women. While the world as depicted here is hardly representative of reality, the relationship dynamics between these abusive louts and their long-suffering mates is certainly true to life. Yes, Serreau is condemning men here with a heavy hand, but she doesn't exactly excuse the women who put up with them and allow themselves to be exploited. The men in this film couldn't do what they do unless the women permitted it to happen.
If all this makes Chaos seem about as fun as a battered women's support group, rest assured that the feminist polemics don't get in the way of Serreau's deft comic touch; Chaos is a funny, sharply observed, entertaining film. While its themes are deadly serious, its approach is generally lighthearted rather than tragic. Chaos is also gifted with some fine comic performances; Lindon's character may be a jackass, but his wide-eyed helplessness makes him more laughably pathetic than hateful. And Brakni, who won a César (the French equivalent of the Oscar) in 2002 for Most Promising Actress (Frot received a Best Actress nomination that year, and Chaos itself was nominated in the Best Film, Supporting Actress, and Writing categories), delivers a fiery, riveting performance as a waif with a heart of steel.
New Yorker Video brings Chaos to DVD with a bare-bones release; the only extra is a theatrical trailer. The film was shot on video -- and looks it -- but it doesn't look like it was transferred to film, so image quality is about as good as the source material will permit. Audio is presented in an adequate, if not especially remarkable, French-only Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track, with optional English subtitles.
Need I say it? Men, tread with caution near this film. Chaos fairly drips with contempt for the Y-chromosome set, showing the male of the species at his absolute worst. For women, this film may be an exhilaratingly cathartic affirmation, but male viewers are warned to steel themselves for a sound thrashing.
While the overtly feminist, male-bashing slant of the film makes Chaos a lousy choice for a date movie, its satirical humor and generally breezy touch save it from becoming merely a political tract. At heart it's a comic fable with a message well worth hearing.
Chaos is hereby released on probation, but warned that any further male-bashing will result in being confined in a locked room with The Man Show.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Release Year: 2001
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer