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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

Sexy, savvy, . . . empowering?


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Coline Serreau
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: French
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

We hear a lot of talk these days from filmmakers about female "empowerment" in the movies. Unfortunately, it's usually someone like a Quentin Tarantino or Drew Barrymore doing the talking, whose idea of "empowerment" is a scene wherein a high-school girl disembowels a guy who tries to pick her up.

News photo
Rachida Brakni (right) and Catherine Frot in "Chaos"

Perhaps the most extreme take on this Lorena Bobbit-ism hailed from France, the notorious "Baise-moi," which laid out the proposition that any crime, any atrocity, was OK if you were a woman, because, well, why not? It's payback time.

Of course, none of these films have anything to say to real women facing real problems. How do you "empower" yourself, say, if you're a hooker sold into prostitution by human traffickers? Kill your pimp with a sword? Yeah, right: You'll end up in jail, or worse, dead when the mafia catches up with you.

That's the problem presented by "Chaos" ("Onna wa Minna Ikiteiru"), which was a huge word-of-mouth hit in France. While being a sharply cynical comedy, this is also a chick-flick with a bit to say about how women are used and abused. Director Coline Serreau ("3 hommes et un couffin," re-made as "Three Men and a Baby") achieves exactly the right mix of dark and light, moving smoothly from gags to gasps, a talent that so obviously eludes Tarantino.

Serreau is blessed with a pair of irresistibly charismatic leads: Veteran Catherine Frot plays Helene, a vaguely disgruntled bourgeois housewife who's in for an existential shock, while newcomer Rachida Brakni plays Noemie, a desperate streetwalker whom fate throws into Helene's path.

One night, as Helene is driving to a dinner party with her stressed-out husband, Paul (Vincent Lindon, an actor who's worked with everyone from Jean-Jacques Beineix to Claire Denis), a frantic young woman in fish-net stockings and high heels, and badly bruised, comes rushing up to their car, pleading for help. Paul, like many a jaded urbanite, responds by coolly locking the doors. He and Helene just look on mutely as a group of thugs beat the girl bloody. Paul can't even be bothered to call the cops, but Helene insists.

The next day, Paul's late for work, and pretends not to be home when his elderly mother comes by to visit. Later, Helene stops by her son Fabrice's apartment. His girlfriend tells her he's not in, but on a hunch she waits outside and spots him leaving several minutes later, blowing her off just like Paul does to his own mother.

Something snaps in Helene. Perhaps it's a feeling of loneliness, or maybe anger at the fact that she means so little to the men she loves, but she makes a decision then and there to find the young prostitute whom she failed to help earlier. Helene finds the girl, Noemie, at a local hospital, where she lies in a coma, and begins a vigil, determined to nurse her back to health. Paul, a firm believer that a woman's place is in the kitchen, rants into his cell phone, leaving messages for Helene to come home. Helene, however, notices some shady young mafia-types stalking Noemie, and begins to fear for her safety . . .

Thus begins a taut suspense in which the mousey housewife will have to muster all her resourcefulness to save this helpless young woman. Helene's awkward heroism is often played for laughs, as is Paul's constant kvetching and Fabrice's conviction that he's God's gift to women.

When we get to Noemie's back-story, however, there's little to laugh about: Fleeing an arranged marriage to a much older man (that's forced upon her by her strict Muslim father), she ends up on the streets of Marseilles, penniless. There she's picked up by a young pimp who comes on nice before stringing her out on heroin and forcing her to work the streets. When she rises in the organization to become a high-priced escort, she devises a scam that could earn her her freedom. When it's discovered, though, her life is in danger . . . which brings us back to Act One.

Frot and Brakni make for a great cool and hot combo. Frot deadpans the comedy perfectly, wearing a look of bemused nonchalance after cracking the head of one pimp. She's also good at disappointment -- the look she gives her husband or son betrays how tired she is of being treated like a maid. It's Brakni's film, though. You can tell the true measure of any actor by what he/she can express with their eyes, and Brakni does about half the film paralyzed, using nothing but.

Once she overcomes her paralysis, though, Brakni turns up the heat, giving a sexy, savvy, cynical (dare I say, "empowering"?) performance as a woman determined not only to survive, but to get her revenge as well. There's a hilarious scene where she seduces Paul using her "escort" skills to teach him a lesson, basically a three-step program for shattering male egos. Step One: Turn him on. Step Two: fake an orgasm. Step Three: disappear. She leaves Paul groveling helplessly near his phone, desperate for a call from the mysterious woman he assumes loves him madly. Hostesses all over Japan will be laughing long and hard.

Yes, there's a bit of male-bashing going on here, but it's good natured (with the exception of the pimps, who deserve all the bashing they can get) and truth be told, there won't be a guy in the audience who doesn't recognize the behavior up on the screen. Sisterhood triumphs here, and we should all cheer.

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