Drive to party takes drastic turn

"Chaos," the title of Coline Serreau's new French thriller, suggests the movie's action-filled content. But it 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've seen one of the new year's most intriguing, intelligent movies.

The story begins as Hélène and Paul, a middle-class couple, are driving to a party. Suddenly their road is blocked by a shocking event - thugs brutally beating a defenseless woman. Paul locks the car doors and speeds away, putting the horror out of sight and mind.

Paul is content to forget the event the next morning, but Hélène's conscience won't leave her alone. She goes to the local hospital and learns that the victim, an Algerian woman named Malika, is alive but in a coma.

Feeling some responsibility, Hélène visits her regularly, rejoicing when she shows signs of returning health. Then she discovers Malika's tormentors are still after her, waiting for her recovery so they can force her to sign a document.

Hélène protects her new friend as best she can, even physically confronting one of the criminals. She can't keep up a constant vigil, though, so eventually she spirits the steadily improving patient to a secret location. This has the added advantage of removing her from her obnoxious husband and son, whose self-centered activities provide the movie's wry subplots.

Friendship deepens between Hélène and Malika at their hideaway - and the story takes a drastic turn, shifting its focus from the complicated present to the equally complex past, showing how Malika's perils started and how she hopes to put an end to them. This takes us from France to Algeria and populates the story with more colorful, often menacing, characters.

A number of recent French imports, such as "The Son" and "Time Out," combine dramatic stories with socially charged messages about European malaise. "Chaos" fits squarely into this category, offering commentary on sexism and racism, among other issues. It does so with a spirit that appears to spring from filmmaker Serreau's own sensibility. This is a story about women that only a woman could have told with such unwavering energy and assurance.

"Chaos" fared proudly in the latest César contest, France's equivalent of the Oscar race. It picked up nominations for best film, screenplay, actress, and supporting actress, and Rachida Brakni was named most promising actress for her fiery portrayal of Malika.

All these honors are thoroughly deserved. Serreau scored a huge success with American audiences in 1985 with the comedy "Three Men and a Cradle," which was then remade by Hollywood as "Three Men and a Baby," also a major hit. "Chaos" is so good that no American-made version could top it. Catch it now, subtitles and all.

Not rated; contains violence and sex.

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