Review: ‘Chaos’

Nothing is the same for a bourgeois couple after they fail to assist a frantic young woman on a Paris street in "Chaos." A breathlessly involving tale of urban indifference, rampant hypocrisy and the difference a little human decency can make, superbly played pic is a black comedy that's frequently funny but never frivolous.

Nothing is the same for a bourgeois couple after they fail to assist a frantic young woman on a Paris street in “Chaos.” A breathlessly involving tale of urban indifference, rampant hypocrisy and the difference a little human decency can make, superbly played pic is a black comedy that’s frequently funny but never frivolous as it takes a merciless but instructive look at French society here and now. Elaborate narrative speaks to four generations and wildly different social spheres with panache. Offshore future for lively pic, which introduces impossible-to-ignore newcomer Rachida Brakni, looks promising.

Work-obsessed businessman Paul (Vincent Lindon) and his wife, Helene (Catherine Frot), are driving to a social function when a wild-eyed young woman (Brakni) careens into their path, screaming, “Let me in! Let me in!” Paul’s immediate reflex is to recoil in distaste while locking the car doors.

When a group of vicious men beat the woman to a pulp, leaving Paul’s windshield smeared with blood, Helene’s instinct is to call the police and an ambulance, but Paul is firm about not getting involved. As they proceed to a car wash to erase the evidence, onlya few minutes of screen time have elapsed.

Haunted by the incident, Helene tracks down the victim, who is in a coma in a hospital. She abruptly takes a hiatus from her job, husband and cavalier college student son, Fabrice (Aurelien Wilk), to keep watch by the woman’s bedside.

The police determine that the victim is a 22-year-old prostitute named Noemie. A month later, when Noemie has regained consciousness but still can’t talk or walk, a man claiming to be her uncle (Wojtek Pszoniak) tries to take her from the hospital. Sensing danger, Helene boldly extricates Noemie by claiming to be a nurse and escapes with her to the country home of Paul’s mother (Line Renaud).

Noemie recovers her voice and narrates a harrowing film-within-the-film that explains how she, her younger sister, Zora (Hajar Nouma), and two brothers were brought to Paris from Algeria by their father. Only weeks shy of getting her high school diploma, Noemie discovers her father has sold her as a child bride and is shipping her back to Algeria.

On the run, Noemie was close to outsmarting her captors when her life literally collided with Helene and Paul — whom she describes in the most unforgiving terms imaginable.

Pic cleverly skewers the collapse of filial piety and generational respect: Paul is indifferent to his loving elderly mom, and Fabrice takes his mom for granted. Also, Serreau deftly calls attention to the plight of countless women who, although raised in France, are still beholden to the ancient customs of North African countries.

Scripter-helmer has zero patience for the hypocrisy and political correctness that relegates abusive practices to “cultural differences.” She also sharply critiques social aid orgs, where “when a man is oppressed it’s a crime, when a woman is oppressed, it’s tradition.”

A national-caliber athlete who opted for the stage, Brakni is lithe, gorgeous and possessed of a penetrating intelligence. (She also stands out in a brief role as a trucking firm employee in Andre Techine’s latest, “Far Away.”) Her range — from bookish young student to the sophisticated but hard-as-nails prostie — is smashing.

Pic was shot on digital video, and whilethe medium may have facilitated the filmmaking process, the video “look” contributes absolutely nothing to an otherwise carefully made venture. Serreau, whose next pic is “18 Years Later” — a sequel to her boffo “Three Men and a Cradle” — has announced she’ll never touch 35mm again.

Chaos

France

Production

A Bac Distribution release of a Les Films Alain Sarde, France 2 Cinema, Eniloc production, with participation of Canal Plus. (International sales: StudioCanal, Paris.) Produced by Alain Sarde. Executive producer, Christine Gozlan. Directed, written by Coline Serreau.

Crew

Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Jean-Francois Robin; editor, Catherine Renault; music, Ludovic Navarre; art director, Michele Abbe; costume designer, Karen Serreau; sound (Dolby), Pierre Lorrain, Muriel Moreau, Joel Rangon; assistant director, Dominique Furge; casting, Bruno Levy, Olivier Carbone, Dan Berthier. Reviewed at Pathe screening room, Paris, Sept. 24, 2001. Running time: 112 MIN.

With

Helene - Catherine Frot
Paul - Vincent Lindon
Noemie/Malika - Rachida Brakni
Mamie - Line Renaud
Fabrice - Aurelien Wilk
Pali - Wojtek Pszoniak
With: Ivan Franek, Chloe Lambert, Marie Denarnaud, Michel Lagueyrie, Hajar Nouma.
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