The endless round of hectic obligations that often accompanies middle-class urban life serves at least one essential function—leaving little time for tenderness or reflection, it dulls the awareness of one’s own eroding humanity. Chaos, writer and director Coline Serreau’s fast-paced feminist thriller and witty black comedy exploring these themes, springs from the dark night of the French bourgeois imagination, where there’s blood on the Peugeot’s windshield and the Louis XIV armchair has come unstuffed.
Paul (Vincent Lindon) and Hélène (Catherine Frot), a typically dysfunctional married Parisian couple, are racing out to dinner when their car is stopped by a young hooker (Rachida Brakni), hotly pursued by thugs, who begs for their assistance. Paul locks the car doors and leaves her on the street, severely beaten; Hélène, consumed by guilt, tracks her down the next day in the intensive care ward of a local hospital and slowly nurses her back to health. But Noémie, as she’s called, is still in danger. To help save her, Hélène abandons her narcissistic husband and similarly needy college-age son, whose domestic lives both devolve into anarchy, as the two women set out on an all-girl adventure.
Brakni won a César for her breakthrough performance as Noémie, née Malika, the Algerian-born prostitute who recounts her melodramatic life story in flashback. A member of the Comédie-Française (and this turn-of-the-century’s answer to Sarah Bernhardt), Brakni lends a touch of post-colonial frisson to the core of French classicism, as the first major star of Algerian descent. Here, though she overacts her scenes of convalescence shamelessly (recalling Elsa Lanchester in The Bride of Frankenstein), her character’s beauty, cunning, and ferocious vitality are captivating.
Lindon and Frot bring considerable comic gifts to bear on their roles as the professionally successful, perennially irritated husband and his beleaguered wife, who get by with a minimum degree of communication. But the heart of the picture lies with veteran actress Line Renaud, who plays Paul’s hapless mother. When she travels from the provinces to Paris once a year to see her son, he hides from her so that he won’t be late to the office, or sits wordlessly beside her in a café, his alienation palpable. Her character highlights the somber truth that lies behind Serreau’s giddy script. In a world where empathy and consideration are rapidly diminishing, women tend to maintain some vestige of concern for others, perhaps as an anachronistic legacy of their maternal function. But it takes a rare degree of skill and determination to keep them from becoming the dupes of men.