Fast-Paced Feminism; Coline Serreau Talks About “Chaos”
by Erica Abeel
It used to be that if you wanted to dis an angry feminist, you’d call her “shrill.” In “Chaos,” Coline Serreau is certainly hopping mad — but it’s tough to call shrill a filmmaker so outrageous and flat-out funny.
She first attracted notice in her native France with a doc that roughly translates as “What Do Women Want?” Since then Serreau has become noted for cheeky, rapid-fire entertainments that double as vehicles to attack the world’s ills. In “Romuald et Juliette” she skewers French racism through the love story of a CEO and a black cleaning lady. Her “La Crise” lampoons a self-absorbed yuppie lawyer, embodied by Vincent Lindon, who’s fired on the same day by his wife and boss. Stateside, though, Serreau is primarily known for that crowd-pleasing farce about girlpower and fatherhood called “Three Men and a Cradle” (later remade here as “Three Men and a Baby.”)
In “Chaos,” Serreau opens a new front, directing a furious cross-cultural barrage at male abuse. The plot centers on Paul (Lindon again) and Helene (Catherine Frot), two well-fixed Parisians who are en route to a dinner party when they witness Malika (Rachida Brakni), a young prostitute, getting beaten by a pack of lowlifes just outside their car. As Malika is left for dead, Paul locks the doors and speeds off. After guilt prompts Helene to track down Malika in the hospital, she puts her own life on hold to help her recover; and the pair team up to inflict misery on the men who have brutalized them. The film includes a long — some would say implausible — flashback recounting the Algerian Malika’s past as a girl who fled an arranged marriage, got hooked by heroin on prostitution, and fought her way clear by mastering stock market speculation and selling herself to a besotted billionaire.
Serreau is fearless and — a Gaullic quirk — refreshingly politically incorrect. Though Arab culture is a hot button issue in France, she refuses to accord North Africans special dispensation when it comes to mistreating women. In fact, while Helene and Malika (a portrayal that garnered Brakni a Cesar) are action heroines, there’s not even a token decent guy in the film. Serreau reserves her most vitriolic satire, though, for corporate chieftain Paul (hilariously nailed by Lindon), who’s totally dismantled by his wife’s defection, and their air-head bed-hopping son.
Nor does Serreau limit the scope of her attack to boys behaving badly. In “Chaos” she lambastes the smug indifference and cowardice of the Western world’s fortunate few –what the French call mauvaise foi; the tendency we share, when confronted with inequities, to turn our eyes away and go about our business. Though maybe not as contemptible as Paul’s abandon of Malika on the pavement, most of us behave in a similar manner, Serreau suggests.
indieWIRE: How has the Muslim population in France, which is sizeable, reacted to the portrait of Algerians in “Chaos”?
Coline Serreau: I’ve had more criticism from the French middle class and the Left than from Muslims. Because most of the Muslim immigrants in France reject Islamic Fundamentalism. It’s like any society: a mixture of different tendencies and movements. Most of the progressive Muslims and young people appreciate that the truth was told. You know, portraying a father selling his daughter is not an exaggeration, it’s the tradition in the countryside. The children are considered as goods to exchange and sell, especially the women. In France, only a minority does that — but it exists. For me there’s no difference between a man selling his daughter and the French upper class guy treating his women the way he does. The patriarchy is causing a lot of destruction in varying forms.
iW: Your films tend to focus on men coming undone. How do you pull so much humor from male meltdown?
Serreau: “Three Men and a Cradle” is the story of three dumb assholes who fall in love with a baby. They’re discovering the real values in life, which were not the ones they were brought up with. Patriarchal values are not the ones that make people happy. In fact, these values destroy men. What you call “meltdown” is for the best, because these guys need to find something new.
iW: Much of the humor in “Chaos” comes from Vincent Lindon’s dead-pan portrayal of a clueless man. But he’s also a scary example of indifference to the plight of others.
Serreau: Vincent Lindon can’t get a handle on his wife’s situation, once she becomes involved with Malika. Husband and wife are totally out of synch. The first thing we see in the film is the attack on this girl, which puts everything into a new perspective. The supposedly “normal” doesn’t apply any more. What Vincent does at the beginning is all too typical — he just cleans her blood off the window and runs. Helene is different, her life is transformed by the event.
But most people just don’t care. If you take five people on this planet, one is on a diet and four are starving. Yet that doesn’t seem to prevent us from going on. What I’m showing in this movie is one person who can’t go on in the old way. She’s stopped in her tracks. And right beside Helene is Paul, who’s oblivious. We see his blindness through her eyes. And that’s where the comedy comes in. It’s also tragedy. Because we’re all doing what Vincent does.
iW: How did you develop your rapport with Vincent Lindon, and how did he come to embody your image of the smug yuppie?
Serreau: I’ve done three films with Vincent. He’s a very good actor who loves to work. I need those kinds of people — most actors don’t like to work hard and question themselves. And as a person he’s very conscious of the typical middle class white bourgeois, and happy to play him with wit. He’s able to criticize his own sex and class. He makes Paul as obnoxious as can be, never for a moment tries to make him look good. He feels the fun of it. Basically it’s this kind of guy who’s leading the world. They’re just pricks, you know, just pigs. I really am grateful to Vincent for betraying his class and sex.
iW: One hallmark of your films is the rapid-fire pace. Might this especially appeal to American audiences?
Serreau: The pace is probably one of the good things in American cinema. In my films the pace is not about maintaining attention, but going to the essential in every single shot. And when it’s over, going to the next point. The audience is clever and can understand.
iW: How did you arrive at the genre-bending mix of comedy, social criticism, and thriller?
Serreau: Humor is the best weapon that artists have. It’s 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.
iW: Have you been criticized for mixing genres?
Serreau: You know the critics, they’re just so conventional. Who cares what they say? French audiences loved it. In any event, in America they’re healthier about mixing genres. In France they rejected Shakespeare for centuries because he was mixing comedy and drama.
Life is a combination of drama and fun all the time. From the very first step of your life it’s drama. Leaving this wonderful body of your mother is a drama. Then you start laughing. All your life, you’re headed toward death, but in the meantime you can still have fun. If people laugh, cry, are moved, most of all think, and go see the film — what else can you want?
iW: Isn’t it a bit of a stretch, though, maybe even offensive, to equate the suffering of Third World peoples with the discontents of the bourgeoisie?
Serreau: The suffering proceeds from the same root. It’s very dangerous to think everything is OK for us in the West, and it’s only their problem. Our wealth is based on the stealing of their wealth, so we’re linked. We need not only to pour money into the Third World — we need to change our own system. And it will happen violently, I’m afraid, which is a pity.
If there were enough progressive policy, it could come in another manner than how it will. If they start a war in Iraq, my God. But Americans live so far from every reality that they don’t imagine what a mess it’s going to be — for them. It’s going to be violent for the Americans like it was on September 11 — and that’s nothing compared to what it’s going to be. America still thinks the whole planet is a garden they can eat. And the Americans have behaved so badly that all the anger against them has been co-opted by the fundamentalists. People whom the Americans gave money to for ages. It’s going to boomerang. I hope the American people who didn’t vote for Bush — and there are many of them — are going to make a move, or else we’re all going to be in big trouble.
iW: On another subject, entirely, I wasn’t convinced Malika could go from working the streets to mastering the stock market.
Serreau: Why wouldn’t she be clever? She goes to the best schools — the public schools in France are still very good. Why should she be different from any other financial wizard. I’ve seen many working class people become ministers. In movies and fiction one of the most important things is the desire of the audience for something. Because it’s more important than the reality of the thing. If you make people desire something to happen, it becomes very convincing. It was that way in “Romuald and Juliette” — some people said love between a black cleaning lady and a mogul isn’t realistic. But when people saw the movie, they wanted it to happen. The desire for something like that is what we need to change consciousness.
iW>: Why DV?
Serreau: Because of the technical progress. Now when you transfer it to 35mm, you can do a really good job. And it completely changes the way of shooting, gives many more hours for the mise en scene. There’s no lighting in the entire movie. I could never go back to 35mm and have to wait forever for the DP. I want the time only for myself.