The new French film by writer/director Coline Serreau (whose Three Men and a Cradle was more nuanced than its similarly titled American remake), Chaos seems initially to be a serio-comedy about guilt and marital disintegration. Helene (Catherine Font) and Paul (Vincent Lindon, recently the ideal lover in Claire Denis’ Friday Night) have reached a crucial point of non-communication in their marriage. The fault seems to lie with Paul, a successful businessman who spends more time at work than at home and whose coldness is demonstrated when he hides in a back room of their flat to avoid a visit from his elderly mother. Shortly after this Helene goes to visit her son at his apartment and he in turn hides from her. In both cases the mothers linger around long enough to see their supposedly absent sons leaving their homes, something which adds a touch of poignancy to the basic message: Here’s a family whose males are basically shits.

This all occurs in the film’s first few minutes, and just when the viewer settles in for a knowing depiction of bourgeois domestic duplicity the first of several sharp shifts of tone takes place. Paul and Helene, driving along a dark road, literally run into a bloody prostitute fleeing some unsavory thugs. Paul’s first instinct, as the wounded woman tries to get into their car, is to lock the doors; his second, as the woman falls half-dead to the ground, is to flee the scene. He does not want to call the police. It’s not his problem.

Helene goes along with Paul for the moment but feelings of guilt prompt her to locate the hospital where the woman has been taken and to begin the daily work of nursing her back to health. The film moves between the domestic comedy of Paul and Helene and her fickle son and his equally fickle girlfriends and the more harrowing drama surrounding the prostitute Malika (Rachida Brakni) and her attempt to start a new life after first heaping some revenge on her tormentors. There’s a long sequence where Malika tells her story to Helene (whom she doesn’t suspect of being in the locked car that night), of how her father sold her into a marriage to an older man (who judged her suitability by looking at her teeth), of her escape into the seemingly friendly arms of a younger man who turned out to be a pimp, of her months of sexual torture before being put out on the street.

It’s a grim tale and it throws the film a little off balance. But while the transitions here from dark to light (or lighter) are a little lumpy at times, the film’s busy plotting generates ample suspense (capped by some satisfying doses of payback). Brakni gives a wonderfully intense performance. Despite some contrivances in the telling, when the heroine morphs from victim to avenger, you believe it.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday, Sept. 1, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].