I AM WOMAN
The eternal struggle between men and women—the incessant need to couple meshed with the struggle to co-exist in the same space—is not terribly well served by this unruly and oddly crafted dramatic comedy. Yes, perhaps men are from Mars, and women are from Venus—but as a Martian I found myself cringing a lot as this film sent feminist zingers thrusting through my maleness. The film is just out of balance—slanting overwhelmingly toward the wonderful goodness of women versus the arrogant selfishness of men. The message of the movie—that this world would be a better place if society was specifically matriarchal—was delivered like a sledge hammers pounding a roofing nail.
The writer/director is Coline Serreau. She was raised in a literate artistic family. She is the daughter of actor/director Jean-Marie Serreau—and her mother is the writer, Genevieve Serreau. Coline has been very active as a writer, director, and actress. As an actress, she has appeared in 8 films since 1971—and she has directed 12 films since 1977. She is considered a “feminist”, and she has built her reputation by making cheeky rapid-fire entertainments that double as vehicles to attack the world’s woes. She worked for a number of seasons, performing with the Café de la Gare Theater Troupe. Her first big success came with her film, THREE MEN AND A CRADLE in 1985. This spawned the American version, THREE MEN AND A BABY in 1987—and it was a hit as well. Serreau was approached, and she consented to write the screenplay for the American sequel, THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY in 1990. In France, she is no stranger to awards. The French Academy of Cinema presented her with a Cesar in 1986, 1993, and again in 2001 for CHAOS—which won for “Best Original Screenplay.”
Music in CHAOS, a 109 minute film, was used very effectively—ranging from Bach arias to French new wave jazz. The music was weaved seamlessly into the imagery by the imaginative cinematographer—Jean-Marie Robin. A real veteran, he has been at the camera helm on 62 films since 1975. He shot BETTY BLUE in 1986 and THE BROWNING VERSION in 1994. He is a self-taught musician, who plays the piano. He is the author of six books—including three novels. He has stated,” When a good camera man interacts with the director—a strong caring relationship develops between the two—which is beneficial for the film. I don’t think that it slows things down or that time is wasted when I operate (the camera) and the lights. I believe that the totality of the imagery is my responsibility. There is nothing more difficult than to “talk” about the visuals, “l’image”, in words. I mean, to speak in words about the photography of a film that has not yet been made can be very abstract.”
Human foibles are legion—and near the top of the list is a common tendency—when confronted with conflict or tragic events—to avert one’s eyes, to turn off, to shut down and then to flee. We seem to be case-hardened emotionally in order to survive in the big cities—and within the very harsh realities of our present day world. The French have a term for it—“mauvaise foi”—to turn the eyes away and go about our business. Most of us have been guilty of this at some point in our lives—to step over the drunk who is lying prostrate on the sidewalk—not wanting to deal with the beggars who sit on apple boxes near the off ramps to freeways—to wake up angry about the incessant bombardment we must endure of con and spam and spin in order to get through the day.
A few weeks ago I stopped by a men’s store for a tuxedo fitting—in preparation for my daughter’s wedding. In the parking lot I was confronted by a well dressed thin middle aged man who was very excited.
“Please, sir—would you listen to me just for a moment? My car is broken down near here on the edge of the freeway. I need to have it towed home. I have money—but I am ten bucks short. The tow truck is here and I got to get back to him soon. I am not a beggar. I work in Tacoma at the Kia dealer. I will give you my name, address, home phone number, social security number, work phone number—the whole nine yards.”
I shrugged and let him write all this information on a slip of paper—in front of several clerks at the men’s store. I, likewise, wrote my name and a work phone number on a slip of paper and gave it to him—along with ten bucks. He thanked me and rushed off. I knew it had to be a con—but some small “sensitive” voice inside prompted me to take a chance—to tempt the fates once more—just to see what would happen. Perhaps I was wrong. Maybe this guy was for real, and I would have my basic faith in mankind reinforced. I waited a month and I had heard nothing from this man. So I rang up Tacoma Kia. He had worked there—three years earlier—and had been fired for misconduct. His home phone had been disconnected. I could have used that ten dollar bill for toilet paper and it would have been more productive.
CHAOS is a feminist fable that alleges to confront some important human issues in this world—and yet for me this dramedy is out-of-focus. Serreau has approached the material laden with such a dark humor that her jabs lack any real power—they irritate but do not stun us. Serreau has been quoted as saying,” Humor is the best weapon that artists have. It is the strongest and most dangerous weapon. I’ll never give it up. Movies help us think about our lives. Otherwise—I don’t see the point of making them. Life is a combination of drama and fun all the time. In France, the critics are all too conventional. They, after all, rejected Shakespeare for centuries because he dared to mix comedy and drama. From the very first step of your life—it’s drama. Leaving the wonderful body of your mother is drama. Then you start laughing. Things are funny. I mean—all your life you are headed toward death—but in the meantime you can still have fun. If people laugh, cry, and are moved—and most of all “think”, after seeing a film—what else do you want?”
In November 1966, a few months after my mother died at 39 years old, I wrote some free verse:
ODE TO OVUM
In the beginning
I was her prisoner,
And I did not love her.
I did not even know her there
In the womb darkness;
Tiny and warm,
With blind eyes closed,
Listening to her strong heart beat
And sucking her hot red blood.
Time was liquid black
As I embraced perfect solitude.
Yet fool that I was,
I longed for something I barely understood
And only faintly had a genetic memory of—
And she gave it to me
All at once—
Pain and milk came quickly,
As I grew
Fat and tousle-haired—
Testing my world,
Eating bugs and coal,
Burning my fingers,
Burying my tiny nose in flowers and snow,
And asking incessantly—
Why, why, why.
She loved patiently,
Wiping my runny nose and
Teaching me about gentleness
In the garden
And in men.
She wept when I did,
Her wonderful tears
Streaking her face powder,
With her small chin quivering.
I remember her still
Towering over me
With sun-streaked chestnut tresses
And those eyes of snow bank sapphire—
The time of cancer blight.
Glassy eyes staring
Her life flickering
Like a candle flame
Too near the holder,
Once white hot and alive—
With wisps of sad smoke
Lingering after it.
Glenn Buttkus 1966
Nicholas Schager of FILM CRITIC.COM wrote,” Even if CHAOS is hampered by a desire to be all things to all people—Serreau’s nimble touch bestows this schizophrenic genre pastiche with an infectiously zany verve.”
In the film, Paul and Helene are a successful middle class couple, and we are introduced to them as they rush about preparing for a dinner party. But while driving to the event, their car was stopped by people running in the street. A young woman was screaming and begging for them to help her—to let her into their vehicle. The two thugs that had been chasing her caught up and proceeded to beat her mercilessly—slamming her across the hood of the car. Her blood became smeared on the windshield. As the pair of brigands fled, they left the woman lying in a bloody heap in the street. Paul calmly drove off—went immediately to a car wash and rinsed the blood off. His car emerged sparkling clean—as if nothing had ever happened.
Mick La Salle of the SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE wrote,” When the wife suggests they should have done something to help the girl—the husband said, ”What girl?” Men behave without a shred of hesitation. They feel that they own the women in their lives. The film is a fable about women struggling to free themselves from that myth.”
Leslie Camill of the VILLAGE VOICE wrote,” That endless round of hectic obligations that often accompanies a middle class urban life style serves at least one essential function—but it leaves little time for tenderness or reflection. It dulls the awareness of one’s own humanity.”
But for Helene, the wife—something did happen. She couldn’t quit thinking about the incident or the young girl. She contacted several local hospitals until she located the woman. After tracking her down, Helene began to visit with her there in the hospital. The young woman, Malika, had been beaten into a coma—nearly to death. She was left mute, traumatized and nearly paralyzed. Helene felt that she simply could not abandon her—again. She salved her own guilt by selflessly staying near the young woman for several days. She did not call home, and made no attempt to explain things to her worried and frustrated husband. She thought to herself,” People are dying—and we don’t care—whether alongside our car—or elsewhere in the world.”
Coline Serreau wrote,” For Helene—her life is transformed by the event. In the movie I am showing that at least one person can’t go on in the old way. She is stopped in her tracks. And right beside Helene is Paul—who is oblivious—and we see his blindness through her eyes. And that’s where the comedy comes in—but it is also tragedy. Because, too often, we are all doing what Paul does.”
Paul Byrons of SMH.COM wrote,” CHAOS is vicious and delicious. It will make strong men weep. Women too—but theirs will be tears of rage—mostly about the bastardry of men. It is a comedy of sorts—but one that will make you shudder. It is brilliantly conceived and mounted—the work of a mature storyteller. If Serreau tries to “say” too much—then it is a fault that you can love.”
Catherine Frot steadfastly portrayed the all-suffering Helene. Initially she was playing the complacency and middle class malaise perfectly. But after the incident—she seemed to have a “feminine” epiphany. Her whole life—lush yet empty and heartless—came into a sharp focus—and she did not like what she saw. She did not seem to have much difficulty walking away from its stilted security—from what she began to see as servitude and conjugal duties. She had been locked into the mold of trophy wife. She was estranged from her remote and very busy self-serving husband—and her very lazy and arrogant son. Frot has been a very busy actress. She has appeared in 71 French films since 1975.
Vincent Lindon played the husband, Paul. He portrayed him as a type-A businessman and personality—who was used to being selfish beyond imagination. He was arrogant, distracted, self-absorbed, handsome yet easy for women to manipulate. But he thought of himself as irresistible to women. In one scene, while conversing with his wastrel son, Fabrice—who was working hard on becoming a man just like his father, Paul said,” No, I am not interested in one of your girlfriends. Don’t you realize that at my office—I am surrounded by beautiful women who are willing to lick me all over—just because I am their boss?” For Paul, success was measured in wealth—and money represented all power. It separated him from the rabble, the have-nots that he was forced to rub shoulders with only on the street. Lindon has worked several times with Coline Serreau. He has appeared in 47 films since 1983. At one point, in his personal life, the Euro-press had a field day with the fact that for a time he had a relationship with Princess Caroline of Monaco.
Coline Serreau said in an interview,” I have done three films with Vincent. He is a good actor who loves to work. As a person—he is very conscious of that typical middle class white bourgeois—and he is happy to play him with wit. He is capable of criticizing his own sex and class. He makes Paul as obnoxious as he can be—and never for a moment tries to make him look good. He feels the fun of it. Basically—Paul is the kind of guy that runs the world. They are just pricks, you know, just pigs. I really am grateful for Vincent for betraying his class and sex.”
Lisa Nesselson of VARIETY wrote,” This film is a breathlessly involving tale of urban indifference, rampant hypocrisy—and the difference a little human decency can make. This superbly played picture is a black comedy that is frequently funny, but never frivolous.”
David Sterritt of the CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR wrote,
“CHAOS is so good that no American-made version could top it. [That is truly an odd sentiment—considering Coline Serreau is now putting the finishing touches on a 2005 American version of CHAOS—starring Meryl Streep as Helene, and with Aishwarya Rai—the Queen of Bollywood—playing Malika.] The title doesn’t convey the drama’s elegant structure—which takes you through a series of surprises so smoothly and logically that it might be over before you realize you have just seen one of the year’s most intriguing and intelligent movies.”
The bylines for the ads on CHAOS read, “RUN, LOLA, RUN meets THELMA AND LOUISE.” That was a very smart spin on the several themes. It certainly tweaked my interest. Unfortunately I did not find it as fresh and original as RUN, LOLA, RUN—nor as dramatic and spot-on interesting as THELMA AND LOUISE. I tend to agree with one reviewer who endeavored to speak for all men—calling the film just “A Chick Flick in French.”
In the film, after Helene has spent what must have been days, maybe weeks, at the hospital with Noemie—who she finds out later is Malika—Helene decided to drop by her apartment and get some of her things. She had been badgered on the cell phone by Paul—who has discovered that he is incapable of taking care of himself. He never learned to iron his own clothes—doesn’t have a clue as to how to operate the dishwasher—and can’t seem to find anything, from kitchen utensils to his favorite tie. I can somewhat relate to this situation. My lovely wife has her shapely finger on the pulse of our home—and she has accepted the responsibility of harboring many of the household secrets. When I can’t find something—she has no difficulty pointing out how pitiful and useless men can be—before she finally locates the item for me and lovingly tosses it my direction.
The movie has several sub-plots. The primary one had to do with the back-story on Malika. Rachida Brakni played Noemie/Malika. She is a dark rail-thin beauty with an Audrey Hepburn dancer’s body—and a gorgeous face that can express simmering sexuality, anger, and disgust. She earned a French “Cesar” as 2001’s “Most Promising Screen Actress”. Yet I found her acting talent, as per this film—her second—bordering on sophomoric and histrionic. During the hospital scenes—before she began to speak again—whenever she had to register fear—her technique would have rivaled a silent screen heroine’s—with her eyes very wide open and mouth agape. It kept bothering me.
Much of the menace supposedly conjured up by the gangsters seemed better placed in one of the Blake Edwards PINK PANTHER films. After the thugs discovered where she was, there in the hospital, and they abducted her in a wheelchair—waving to the nurse’s and smiling—they seemed comic and harmless. That whole section lacked any real dramatic tension. Later when Helene arrived in a taxi at the last moment to confront them and retrieve Malika—the scene became even more absurd.
Malika had two brothers and a younger sister. They were raised in a strict Muslim home. When she was about 15, her Islamic stepfather sold her to a wealthy older man from Morocco. When Malika realized what was happening—she bolted. But soon she found herself wandering those mean streets of Paris—alone and hungry. A roving pimp spotted her—and as a seasoned sexual procurer—he saw her as a potential prostitute. He was nice to her—bought her food and clothes. After a few days, though, he delivered her to a “training facility”. He belonged to a highly organized prostitution ring of thugs—who dealt in deception, sex, and dope.
They locked her in a small room. She was raped a dozen times a day by different gang members—and they hooked her on heroin. Admittedly, this part of the film was chilling and quite harrowing. There were no comic undertones or themes explored here. This was a sordid underground world of men exploiting women beyond imagination. One of the symbols that Serreau explored here was that of an empty meaningless marriage—like Helene’s. She implied that marriage, a bad one, can be similar to being forced into prostitution—that for some women—marriage was somewhat less brutal than peddling their ass on the streets—but certainly no more satisfying. A selfish husband was analogous to a selfish John, and many women have to perform sex without love for money and security.
After several weeks of “conditioning”, Malika was “rigged-out” in a sexy outfit and placed on the streets—overseen by a couple of vicious pimps. In an odd twist within several odd twists of plot—she discovered that she had a knack for understanding investments and the stock market. Soon she caught the eye of one of the under bosses—and she was allowed to learn more—and make investments for the mob. Of course—she did fabulously well—always hit the jackpot and pay-off. This aspect of the plot seemed quite contrived and extremely oversimplified—but it did remind me that I was viewing a dark fairy tale—a stinging parable about the inherent natural goodness of women versus the natural avarice, arrogance, and selfishness of men.
In grand soap opera style—soon Malika had a new “intelligence and class”. So she was taken off the streets and was allowed to prowl the salons, hotels, and casinos—trolling for a rich aging sugar daddy. She found the perfect old satyr—and in short order he was eating out of her hand. She meticulously explicated how ridiculously simple it was to approach any man—pretend some level of interest in him—thus seducing him—have sex with him—fake several orgasms—and then hide from him for a week or two—driving him mad with missing her. Then she would reappear—turn on her “blow torch”, her sexuality, and re-hook him. Once satiated with the intensity of the sex and insincerity, any man was ripe for manipulation. Then she would make her demands.
In the case of her aging patron—she knew he was ill—probably with a bad heart. She convinced him that if he wanted her to stay with him—he would have to give up his considerable fortune directly to her. He forked over millions of francs immediately. She hid the money in a special account in a secret bank. The rich guy died and she tried to break away from the gang—but they were quickly on to her ploys. They demanded the bank codes. She refused—preferring death to slavery—and thus the materialization of her beating at the beginning of the film.
Nicholas Schager of FILM CRITIC.COM wrote,” Still for all its inspired lunacy, CHAOS can’t stop harping on the narrow-minded idea that the only relationship between men and women are those that are functional business transactions. As a result—the film’s commentary on women’s secondary status in modern society holds no resonance. It is unbelievably cartoonish—and not nearly as pleasurable as several of the film’s humorous sub-plots. The unreasonably drawn out finale finds everyone getting what they deserve—good or ill—and learning some pat lessons about life and love. But the fun is not in Serreau’s heavy-handed affirmation of estrogen power—it is in the story’s restless, realism-be-damned chaos.”
Andrew Urban of the AUSTRALIAN URBAN CINEFILE wrote,
“Coline Serreau’s anger-driven dramatic comedy—aimed squarely at the oppression of women in many Islamic families. The approach is a bit too obvious and her many points a tad too manipulative. She contrasts the arrogant, self-centered, weak, useless bourgeois—or Islamic men—with the constantly compassionate strong nurturing women. The title is an oblique reference to the power of human nature to regenerate—to bring order out of chaos.”
Another sub-plot had to do with Paul’s mother, Mamie, played by Line Renaud. Paul either couldn’t be bothered with her—or he was embarrassed by her—or he was just a selfish boor; either way he refused to spend any time with her. Once a year she would travel to Paris, and put up in a hotel for a week—at her own expense. When she would stop by Paul and Helene’s apartment, to drop by a gift, Paul would pretend not to be there—and he would force Helene to answer the door and lie to her for him. Mamie would sit a nearby bistro and watch him later when he emerged for work.
Ironically, Paul’s son, Fabrice, would treat his mother the same way. She would stop by his apartment, and he would instruct his girlfriend of the moment to lie to her—to tell her he was not in. She would sit at a nearby bistro and watch him emerge later to go to school. Fabrice was working hard at emulating his father. Paul would finally condescend to “see” his mother. He would usually meet her at a café. They would “visit” for a half hour. He would just stare into space—and would only speak in short sentences in direct response to her questions. He would never inquire as to her health or well being—then he would look at his wrist watch for the twentieth time, make some excuse and rush off. Those of us that have lost our mothers early in life just want to reach into the screen—grab him by the neck and throttle him. In the film, after Helene has rescued Malika—she took her to Paul’s mother’s house in the countryside—and they stayed there with Mamie. The three women got along famously—nurturing each other maximally.
Memo Salazar wrote,” I thought I was watching the trailer—that hip jazzy St. Germain music—the quick cutting and hand-held style—the fact that we are suddenly thrust into the middle of the action—all this fooled me. The fact that this frantic pace was kept throughout the two hours without ever being monotonous is a testament to Serreau’s ability as a screenwriter and director.”
Another sub-plot dealt with the son, Fabrice. He was the only child of Paul and Helene. He was played by Aurelian Wiik. Fabrice was a spoiled rich kid wannabe slacker who moved unemotionally from one woman’s bed to another—to another—who lied to his parents and to his several girlfriends—who had probably impregnated one of his randy harem—who had adopted his father’s arrogance without having the drive and motivation to actually gain an education or create a vocation—who was enrolled in college, but rarely attended any of his classes—who had several friends who acted exactly the same as he did—who shamelessly leeched off his parents for money—was a living testament to all that was wrong with his parents—and with the French middle class.
Memo Salazar also wrote,” The French have the distinct ability to take the familiar, and infuse it with such originality, depth of emotion and kinetic energy—that the story we thought we “knew”—becomes something immeasurably different. CHAOS is pure emotion—spiraling out in so many directions that when it reaches its satisfying conclusion—you almost can’t believe you made it. And in the end, the women have together, forged a new fulfilling life—full of emotional connection—while the men end up alone—left to face the pathetic hollow messes of their lives.”
There is yet another sub-plot that dealt with Malika’s family—whereby she became consumed with saving her younger sister, Zora—played by Hajai Nouma. The wicked Islamic stepfather was up to his old tricks—and he had arranged to sell Zora too. Her life was shown to be one of servitude and emotional isolation within her family. She received no affection or respect from her mother, or her two older brothers. When it came time for the marital journey to Morroco, at the ship—Malika and Helene showed up to save the day. The three women ran off hand-in-hand—hear them roar!!
Kristina Feliciano of OFFOFFOFF.com wrote,” The film splays kaleidoscopically before coming together delightfully in the end. This movie has more plots than a cemetery. The heist that is Malika’s revenge—is also the stealing back of her dignity—and that of Helene and Paul’s mother—and of Malika’s younger sister. These embattled female characters find a peacefulness and liberation that they may never have known had not their paths crossed. Serreau is trying to show that the domination of men in our patriarchal society is the source of all demons.”
Sam Adams of the PHILADELPHIA CITY PAPER wrote,” This film won’t win any awards for gender balance—the women are uniformly put upon and virtuous—the men are without exception—conniving and self-interested.”
When a plot is written from the male perspective—like most of the main network soap operas—and the Spanish film, JAMON—JAMON (1992)—it is usually the female characters that emerge as selfish vixens, plotters, home-wreckers, seducers, opportunists, and power hungry bitches. That character of the femme fatale has always been one of the female black widow—who enslaves her males, uses and abuses them—then kills them and devours them. Even in CHAOS, when Malika felt it was necessary to demonstrate to Helene just how stupid and single-minded her husband and son were—she had no difficulty whatsoever first seducing Paul at the airport—and then later Fabrice. But for me, the scene became a situation comedy as Malika passed Paul in the crowd—swooned and feigned a faint in front of him. A true gentleman, he helped her into the ladies room—where she turned on her “blow torch”. They had torrid sex in a toilet stall. She faked a pair of orgasms—and he was hooked. Then she did not contact him for a few days—and he pined away for her like a 14-year old with a school boy’s crush. With Fabrice, she used reverse sexuality—and refused to have physical relations with him—thus driving him crazy as well.
When Malika finally did consent to re-connect with Paul—she got him in her car—drove him out to his mother’s house and dropped him off. He sat there in front of his mother for several hours--in a masculine daze—being both clueless and unrepentant. At one point she actually stopped by Paul & Helene’s apartment—and Fabrice foolishly introduced her to his father—not realizing that they were both involved with the same woman. The farcical oversimplification of these events did little to further the plot. It only served to illustrate and compound the true absurdity of Paul and Fabrice’s callow selfishness.
The final thread of the several plotlines had Helene and Malika tricking the gang—offering to give them the bank account codes—and then getting them apprehended by the gendarmes. This, I guess, was supposed to set a dramatic tone—to add some girth or dimension to the one-note feminist message of the rest of the movie—but for me this scene further reduced whatever malice the thugs had mustered up previously, and plopped it squarely into farce—reducing them to the dubious stature of Blake Edwards’ villains and Hal Roach bad guys—shallow, weak, and ridiculous.
Memo Salazar was much kinder to the film—this feminist diatribe comedy cum-drama, social criticism, lame thriller. Salazar wrote,” CHAOS is many things. It is—
1. A commentary on modern society—wherein we pursue our own short-sighted selfish interests—at the expense of real human emotional connection.
2. An incredibly strong feminist film—illustrating that all men are selfish boors.
3. A silly black comedy with several plots that get more and more outlandish as the film progresses—leading to a predictable but entertaining climax.
Truth be told, this film is a combination of all three—with Serreau weaving in and out of each slice or section—in order to serve up a cinematic pie that defies easy analysis.”
When one endeavors to reflect on this film—to sort out the several ingredients—and try to make sense of it all—you find yourself being more aware of all the parts than you are of the whole. It is like consuming a poorly prepared dish that has been overly spiced. All your poor taste buds can do is respond to the seasoning—not the dish itself. The film never quite jells—never comes fully together. It remains a mostly sophomoric soufflé that separates on the palate. So it turns out to be many things—many movies stirred sarcastically.
The fairy tale ending—showing us Malika, Helene, Zora, and Mamie—all sitting on a picturesque wooden garden bench—in front of Malika’s gorgeous new home—purchased with her new ill-gotten wealth—all staring out at the eternal sea—each one smiling—each one being a mother to the other—independent, strong, and fully-bonded—rings false as a television commercial. It was not heart-warming. It bordered on being insulting.
Yet Coline Serreau is a skillful artist, writer, and director—and the feminine side of my own nature smiled in unison with these four happy women. It was my prickly masculine side that railed against the sexist feminist pat quality of this epilogue.
Shivering with cognitive dissidence, I rated this film at 2.5 stars.
Glenn Buttkus (2005)