Female empowerment story delivered bluntly in `Chaos'

Lack of subtlety turns powerful film into a screed


April 11, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

There's not a male character in Chaos who doesn't deserve castration, or maybe worse. Which is a shame: Nothing against feminist fairy tales where the women seize control of themselves and their destinies, but the heavy-handed approach writer-director Coline Serreau uses here can't help but alienate roughly half the average viewing audience.

That said, however, there's no denying the power, skill and tenacity of this ode to female empowerment. And even the malest male would have to admit there's the ring of truth to its depiction of a society where women are marginalized to an obscenely degrading level. And Serreau has the good sense to leaven her screed with an occasional dollop of wicked humor.

The film opens with a middle-class Parisian couple ignoring the screams of a young woman frantically beating on their car window. The husband locks the car door, and the couple watch passively as the woman is dragged to the ground and beaten. The wife wants to do something, but her husband's only concern is wiping the woman's blood off his windshield and leaving before any police arrive.

This husband, Paul (Vincent Lindon), turns out to be the most shallow, self-centered person in all of Paris. In his life's role as a chauvinist jerk, he routinely ignores (and thus debases) the women in his life, especially his wife, Helene (Catherine Frot), and his sweet, endearing mother, Mamie (Line Renaud), whom he cavalierly avoids.

But Helene's conscience is not so easily assuaged. She seeks out the assault victim at a local hospital and becomes the woman's combination companion and guardian angel, pushing her forward in her recovery and protecting her when the men who were trying to kill her return to finish the job.

Slowly, the woman (Rachida Brakni, in an extraordinary performance that won her a Cesar, the French version of the Oscar) regains her strength and wits and begins to tell her story. Forced into prostitution after escaping from her father, who was about to sell her to an Algerian man for 2,000 francs, Malika was on the run from her pimp and his organization when two idiots in a car - she never saw their faces clearly - refused her entreaties for help.

It's a harrowing tale Malika relates, growing up in a culture where women are sold from family to family in much the same way as horses - and then finding herself in yet another culture, allegedly more socially advanced, where she's not treated any better. But Malika has figured a way out, one that may help liberate Helene as well.

The acting in Chaos is first-rate, especially Brakni and Frot, whose face registers shades of enlightenment as she digs herself out of the emotional hole in which the men in her life have buried her. And Serreau's direction keeps the narrative moving, even during a long exposition in the middle of the film.

Chaos, in miring itself in the inequities (not to mention obscenities) of male-dominated culture, is after greater truths. Certainly, in a world where many societies value women only a shade above chattel, it's a truth that needs airing. The sad thing about screeds is that the only people they tend to affect are those already sympathetic to their cause. The driving force behind this movie deserves better than that.


Starring Catherine Frot, Vincent Lindon, Rachida Brakni

Written and directed by Coline Serreau

Released by New Yorker Films (In French, with English subtitles)

Unrated (Language, violence, sexuality)

Time 108 minutes

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