(Coline Serreau, France, 2001)


Chaos begins from one of the most popular and prevalent plot devices in French cinema: the unexpected encounter of people from different social classes. Hélène (Catherine Frot) and Paul (Vincent Lindon), a comfortable bourgeois couple, are driving one night when they see Malika (Rachida Brakni) beaten and left in the gutter. Their response is to roll up the windows and flee.

In fact, the middle-class characters of this film spend a lot of their time fleeing from life’s realities. They even hide or run from each other, as in the heartbreaking scenes where mothers try to visit their children, and are turned away.

Hélène, however, breaks the cycle of indifference and neglect. She visits Malika in the hospital and watches over her slow recovery. When the two women finally bond, they launch themselves into a double-pronged adventure, aiming at getting the upper hand over both Paul and a criminal underworld.

Chaos is a freewheeling social satire that hits most of its targets with verve and wit. Writer-director Coline Serreau (Three Men and a Cradle [1985]) sticks tenaciously to her unmistakably ’70s political sensibility. She creates a feminist sisterhood utopia that crosses all ages, classes and races.

There are a few facile passages where the film loses its way, but in large part Serreau delivers her message with style, thanks in part to her adoption of digital cameras.

The most disarming part of the film is a long flashback detailing the background of oppression in Malika’s family life. This part seems calculated by Serreau to offend some overly delicate left-wing sensibilities, but the segment transcends mere provocation to become a crucial and persuasive thread of the story.

Whenever Serreau adopts the frame of a girls-own adventure, you can bet the men are going to be presented in unflattering, caricatured ways. The politics of this reverse discrimination gesture are unsubtle, but she uses it as a marvellous springboard for comedy.

There are only two types of guy in Chaos: violent brutes and big babies. The first type is overly generic, but the second is a source of endless humour in Serreau’s hands. The confused sex life of Paul and Hélène’s son, Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik), is portrayed with particular drollness.

All throughout Chaos, which is ultimately a modest, contained piece powered by some good ideas and great actors, I kept wondering: why can’t Australia produce exhilarating, low-budget films of conscience like this?

© Adrian Martin April 2003

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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