- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 27, 2003

At first blush, “Chaos” seems like another “Thelma & Louise”-style girl-power roar. Make no mistake, it is that. French

writer-director Coline Serreau is the gal behind the original version of “Three Men and a Baby,” so she likes to have fun at men’s expense.

But “Chaos” — a frenzied concoction of comedy, hospital soap opera and pop commentary showing exclusively at Visions Cinema and Bistro Lounge in Northwest — may actually make a brave, important statement: Islam can threaten women’s freedom.

Not many public figures in France are willing to say that, so Miss Serreau deserves kudos. Alas, that doesn’t mean she necessarily has made a movie as watchable as it is admirable. It’s also unclear how brave she’s actually being.

Before we get to that, though, here’s the story:

“Chaos” opens on a humorous note with a middle-class Parisian couple, Paul and Helene (Vincent Lindon and Catherine Frot), racing around their apartment before going out for the evening.

Things quickly turn ugly. Driving to their engagement, they witness a vicious beating of a young prostitute (Rachida Brakni) by three pimps. The girl pleads with the couple for help, but Paul, despite Helene’s own pleadings, callously drives on, the better to avoid any subsequent hassle with the police and lawyers.

It’s just some hooker, right? Why bother?

From this chance event, Miss Serreau launches into a scattershot, often confusing chain of subplots that invariably find a way to smear the unfair sex: Men. Pigs. Louts. Cads. Fill in your own derogatory superlative, ladies.

They’re not all pimps, but they might as well be. If the men in this film aren’t criminals, they’re unfaithful scoundrels, and they’re mean to their mothers.

Feeling guilty about leaving the prostitute for dead and — just as acutely — feeling fed up with her inattentive, workaholic husband and her unappreciative, irresponsible son (Aurelien Wiik), Helene, a lawyer, decides to devote all her energies to the young girl’s convalescence.

So she ditches the men in her life — who, fending for themselves, are made to look like helpless buffoons — and attends to young Malika, the prostitute.

Miss Brakni, it has to be said, is terrible in this role. Initially in a coma, Malika gradually regains her motor skills, a process during which Miss Brakni turns into a laughable raggedy doll. Terry Kiser’s performance as a dead guy in “Weekend at Bernie’s” suddenly looks more respectable.

She is even worse as a mime. When the pimps drop by the hospital to finish the job, Miss Brakni makes a ridiculously outsize, bulging-eyes face to signal the hospital staff that the visitors are bad guys.

Despite Miss Brakni’s apparent lack of basic acting skills, “Chaos” receives a big lift when Malika reveals her harrowing back story to Helene.

Malika is an Algerian Islamic immigrant who fled home after her father literally sold her to a businessman. Homeless and penniless, she wound up in the clutches of a sordid sex-slave syndicate.

In ways I won’t reveal, Helene and Malika conspire to snooker every Y-chromosome creature that ever crossed their paths. I will say the scheme hinges on Malika’s being a self-taught stock-market whiz.

As unlikely as this scenario is, Miss Serreau needed it for her larger moral: that fundamentalist Islamic culture, which is flowing torrentially into France, treats women like chattel. They’re not to be educated; they’re commodities created for the benefit of men.

It’s a shame Miss Serreau had to sweeten her movie with a lot of comical, run-of-the-mill man bashing. It’s possible the writer-director meant to conflate modern, typical male boorishness with premodern Islamic male tyranny, arguing that the practical reality for women is the same, veils or no.

If so, she’s a radical crank. If not, she could have used a little more chutzpah.


TITLE: “Chaos,” in French with English subtitles

RATING: Not rated (Strong sexuality; fleeting nudity; profanity; brief graphic violence)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Coline Serreau. Produced by Alain Sarde. Photography directed by Jean-Francois Robin. Original score by Ludovic Navarre.

RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes.


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