A Quebecoise seismologist feels the earth move in mysterious ways when returning to the town of her birth in “Chaos and Desire,” an impressive sophomore venture by writer-director Manon Briand that explores the power of will and coincidence in strongly cinematic terms. Both atmospheric and deftly humorous, the mystery-drama is anchored by a strong perf by Pascale Bussieres that should propel this good-looking widescreen production to healthy returns in Francophone Canada (where it opens Sept. 6), with some offshore arthouse legs as well as festival mileage also indicated.
Bussieres plays Alice, first seen wrapping a one-night stand in Japan, where she works at the Tokyo Seismology Lab, a high-tech international monitor of tremblers. Casually disposing of her lover’s business card in her portable shredder, Alice is all business at her workplace, where she’s informed of a strange occurrence in her hometown of Baie Comeau, a small burg on Quebec’s St. Lawrence River.
Briand’s smooth technique — already displayed in her 1998 debut, “2 Seconds,” about a fanatical woman cyclist — immediately sets up an air of mystery as Alice flies in to investigate the strange phenomenon. A week ago, the tides in the North Shore town went into stasis, neither ebbing nor flowing, and a dry sandbank appeared, on which the locals now play golf.
Alice suspects the lack of activity could be a precursor to a major earthquake, though the locals seem convinced it’s a precursor of something more magical. Though she was only born in the town and didn’t grow up there, Alice starts to feel strange vibes as soon as she arrives, and is further surprised when she meets an old college friend, lesbian journalist Catherine (French thesp Julie Gayet), who joins her in the investigation.
Though many of the locals’ stories of curious occurrences don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny, Alice starts to sense something strange is happening. A young adopted Chinese girl (Ji-yan Seguin) has started sleepwalking whenever there should be a high tide; a local dinette owner (veteran Genevieve Bujold) is convinced something paranormal is afoot; and the home number of Marc (Jean-Nicolas Verreault), a water-bomber pilot to whom Alice feels attracted, has been torn out of every phonebook in town.
When Alice and Catherine investigate the local newspaper’s archives, they find that a plane crash, in which Marc’s wife was swept away by the river’s currents, could be central to the mystery. Both Marc and the townspeople still can’t accept that his wife is dead.
Briand’s linear script is sometimes too signposty, carefully leading the viewer and providing summaries along the way. But given the pic’s supernatural slant — dealing with the power of human will and the “synchronicity” of events — in general, it skillfully negotiates its way around potholes of pretension.
Briand’s strong marshaling of the pic’s elements — from David Franco’s handsome widescreen visuals to Simon Cloquet’s atmospheric score — manages to suspend the viewer’s belief for long enough stretches. Only in the last reel does the movie jump the rails, with an unnecessarily literal ending that could be jettisoned.
Strong, focused, but also finding room for moments of tenderness, Bussieres gives one of her best perfs as Alice, a professional women still coming to terms with a love affair that went sour three years earlier. Verreault and other supports are all fine; only Gayet is miscast, and deeply unconvincing, in the cliched role of the lesbian journo.
A far better English title would be “The Turbulence of Water,” better reflecting the movie’s metaphysical focus and closer to the original French. Movie buffs will also note some thematic similarities to part of the prologue of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Magnolia.”