Coline Serreau’s Chaos begins with a conflict that is just as much a confrontation to the audience as it is to the characters: an upper-class Paris couple on their way to dinner come across a prostitute being beaten by a group of thugs, and instead of helping her they lock their car doors and speed off as quickly as they can. It comes as a bit of a surprise then that a sizable chunk of the film forgoes stone-faced didacticism for a shambling comedy of manners. The couple in the car, Helene (Catherine Frot) and Paul (Vincent Lindon), are typically spoiled and unhappy, unable to communicate with one another or work together to raise their rotten teenage son (Aurelien Wilk). In retaliation against her husband’s adultery, Helene seeks out the battered prostitute, Malika (Cesar-winner Rachida Brakni), that Paul insisted on leaving behind and who now lies in a coma under constant threat from her attackers. Soon she becomes her nurse, her protector, and her friend.
This premise seems like a self-important trifle, but you feel a welcome tremor of hope when discovering that Serreau is far more engaged by the velocity of her pacing and the scrambled nuances of her characters than whatever message the plot is attempting to dispatch. Shot on digital video, which lends the film an added measure of weightlessness, the film hurtles through nearly as many characters and complications as one might expect to find in a Robert Altman tapestry, and Serreau shrewdly keeps the film’s improbable comic tone as vigorous and disheveled as possible. As Malika’s suspicion of Helene cautiously blossoms into a deeply felt confidence, the relationship between Helene and Paul disintegrates into a snit regarding his inability to oversee his own ironing and cooking. Added to this skirmish is their son’s mushrooming romantic follies: he’s cheating on his live-in girlfriend and is constantly moving back home because of his inability to manage the situation with discretion. Meanwhile, Helene and Malika further bond with the help of Paul’s neglected mother (Line Renaud, who brings considerable warmth to her small role).
Chaos has been deftly edited to avoid any lingering traces of sentimentality or remorse; no scene extends itself for even a split second longer than necessary, allowing the film’s sweeping array of circumstances, which are complicated to the point of bafflement, to be compressed into a mere hour and 48 minutes. The film is also remarkable in that it approaches its assortment of characters with an even hand, regardless of their behavior—until the final third, that is, when Serreau appears to have decided we’ve had enough fun for one sitting and veers the film in the exact direction you expected it to go in the first place. Starting with a long flashback of Malika’s painful experiences—exiled from her authoritarian Muslim family after refusing an arranged marriage, she was forced to sell herself at the side of the road in exchange for drugs—and eventually pounding home the final nails in the coffin housing Helene and Paul’s marriage, the film deviously unveils its determination to employ the same variety of blithe screed that triumphed in similar failed attempts at renegade feminism like Thelma & Louise.
The easygoing neutrality fades as all of the male characters morph into complete buffoons while the women are allowed to prevail through the most incredulous means possible. Perhaps it is the film’s inability to render its comic tone compatible with scenes of rape and oppression, or maybe it simply lost interest in trying to humanize all of its characters and thus make its ultimate intentions completely clear. But by the time it gets around to giving every character in the film with a penis their deserved and just humiliation (mowing down Helene’s husband and son, the host of pimps and drug pushers, and Malika’s inherently evil father and brothers like fish in a barrel) there’s not much to be interested in beyond the obvious. As the labored intensity of its eventual preaching winds down, Chaos manages to end with one character’s slightly cockeyed smile, suggesting that the hazy pessimism lurking in the women’s victory over their tormentors is as much of an illusion as the film’s lighthearted first hour. It’s a bittersweet moment, as it’s impossible to forget that such a buoyant grin could have been ours to share while the credits rolled.