Time was, moviegoers could rely on European films for interesting ideas and unpredictable storylines. But in the 1990s, foreign producers decided that the way into the American film market was to make American-style movies. Since then we have been besieged by a series of lame comedies and generic thrillers that don't come across any better than the homegrown duds. Fortunately there's a countertrend of idiosyncratic European filmmakers -- Almodovar, Patrice Chereau, the Dogme gang, and Mike Leigh among them. To this list belongs Coline Serreau with her 2001 feature Chaos, a wry, snappy film now screening at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, which combines an unpredictable suspense tale with some wry comedy and pungent social commentary.
The story starts off fast and doesn't pause for breath. In Paris a long-married, long-bored couple, Hélène (Catherine Frot) and Paul (Vincent Lindon), are late again, rushing off to a nameless appointment. They literally race through their flat, throwing on clothes and grabbing their keys. In their car they roar through the streets with not so much as a glance at one another. But en route to wherever they need to get to, they encounter an Algerian prostitute, Noémie (Rachida Brakni), fleeing some thugs on a cobblestoned street. The thugs beat the hooker into a coma and flee. Hélène is concerned for the hooker but says nothing. Paul is only concerned with the blood on his car.
Back home, Hélène begins to see more cruelties. When Paul's mother (Line Renaud) comes to visit, he pretends he's too busy with work. Hélène aids this deception, then sees the same trick pulled on her as her son Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik) hides when she visits him. Suddenly Hélène begins to see that the heartless chaos in Noémie's life parallels that in her own. On a whim, she goes to the hospital, finds the unconscious hooker, and watches over her. Hélène is so obsessed she stays at the hospital round the clock for days, then weeks. As Noémie begins slowly to recover, shadowy men try repeatedly to get to her; Hélène realizes Noémie is hiding an entirely different identity than it first appeared, and helps her escape.
Directed by Coline Serreau. Starring Catherine Frot, Vincent Lindon, and Rachida Brakni. Playing at the Cosford Cinema at the University of Miami, May 17 through 25; 305-284-4861.
Meanwhile, demanding, pompous Paul keeps calling her cell phone insisting she come home to cook, iron, and clean up. His plight is worsened when Fabrice gets caught cheating on his fiancée and returns home, creating further mess. Thus goes an intriguing, wry tale that tracks Hélène's suspenseful attempts to help Noémie while counterbalancing some droll comedic subplots with Paul, Fabrice, and his rival girlfriends.
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Through both suspense and comedy, director Serreau manages to land a number of points about male tyranny and emotional dysfunction. In Chaos, the women are outsiders and on the run. And while Hélène befriends Noémie, she's horrified to realize that her powerless status as a bourgeois wife isn't all that different from that of a hooker.
Serreau directs with a crisp pace and a thankfully nonsentimental style. What's especially refreshing is her embrace of conflicting emotions and emotional situations. Just as its title implies, Chaos includes hilarity, danger, whimsy, and no small dollop of cruelty. Unlike many Hollywood schlockmeisters, Serreau, who wrote the script as well as directed, isn't afraid of tonal or stylistic jumps: If you can imagine what Thelma & Louise meets Krzysztof Kieslowski meets Preston Sturges might be like, you'll get an idea of what Chaos has in store. Serreau is aided in her juggling act by her able cast, who handle the drama and the laughs with equal skill. Cinematographer Jean-François Robin's camerawork is agile without being showy; the same with Catherine Renault's quick, sure editing.
With a film this intriguing and well made, the question arises: Where has it been these past three years? The answer, sadly, lies in the moribund, corporatized film distribution system in this country, which relentlessly sells inferior Hollywood and international product and ignores many worthy, unique projects such as this one. Fortunately Chaos reigns here in Miami, for a few weeks at least.