Not A Whore's Life
review by Norman Douglas
Directed and written by Coline Serreau
(in French, with English subtitles)
Director of photography, Jean-Franois Robin
Edited by Catherine Renault
Music by Ludovic Navarre
Production designer, Michle Abbe
Produced by Alain Sarde
Released by New Yorker Films
Running time: 108 minutes. This film is not rated.
Cast: Catherine Frot (HŽlne), Vincent Lindon (Paul), Rachida Brakni (NoŽmie/Malika), Line Renaud (Mamie), AurŽlien Wiik (Fabrice) and Ivan Franek (Touki).
"It was a dark and stormy night..."
Knowing at least that this film promises to deliver some kind of feministic slant, I spend Friday afternoon and evening trying to get a female to see it with me, but I strike out. The five women I manage to ask have other plans: one needs prior notice, so it's too late to ask her; another has to work in her theater, and will only be through at midnight; a third only wants to get wasted and bother some guy friend of hers; the fourth is sick in bed and has to work early the next morning; the fifth lives in Jersey City and doesn't want to be in the city on Friday night. I phone three others, but two never return my call after I leave a message, while the third has given me her business card with a bogus phone number (a rather elaborate foil for would-be cranks, I might add). Thus, I enter the Angelika round midnight alone, and when I ask the cashier for a press kit, she has to call the manager because she doesn't know what I'm talking about. "What's that?" she asks the other ticket-girl with a look as puzzled as it is annoyed. "I'on'know," comes the sneered reply, cutting her pretty, made-up eyes at me, the next in a long line of way-too-nerdy-assed filmgoers she's learned not to deal with. The manager arrives to tell me they have nothing (a subversive comment?), so I suck down a Chesterfield cigarette on the steps outside, then descend the steps inside - the down escalator's broken - to await the screening. During previews, the light on the projector cuts, so I'm screaming at the empty booth while the other members of the audience try to decide whether or not they should fear my cries of "Give up the light or gimme my money back!" After two entire previews, he responds (I see him through the window), and I sit through six more previews, each one terrifyingly unappealing, all selling the same film with six different titles. At least, that's the way it seems.
Finally, Chaos starts, its opening shot positioned behind the principle actress in a brown evening gown, her alabaster shoulders bare as she looks in the mirror, primping herself. Despite this patently nineteenth century opening, Chaos is shot in France during the year before 9/11, and presumably takes place somewhere during the three to five years before that political milestone. Within thirty seconds, the milky flesh of Helene is draped in a wrap, and her husband, Paul, races to an "important" dinner with Helene in the passenger seat of their de rigeur European compact (at least one can never blame European films for promoting SUV-chic). Through the windshield, we see a desperate young woman wearing the black garb of the night hurtle down the street toward the auto, a trio of enervated riff raff hot on her heels. None too keen on "getting involved," Paul acts decisively. "Lock the doors!" he orders his not so decisive woman. Dithering, she obeys, her eyes racked with guilt and shame, biting her lip. The montage is relentless, abrupt - and will remain so for the rest of the film - cutting to the windshield as stop, the young brown-skinned woman's face slammed into it, thrust down by a snarling, black leather-clad punk's gruesome power, blood spattering like a slice of steaming hot pizza dumped on the linoleum. "Help!" chokes the wretched, scantily clad slut as the pimp yanks her hair and her already mangled snout jerks up, only to be cast down under the horizon of the hood, at which point the other two thugs commence the familiar spasms of the upper body that suggest the act of kicking. The pimp leans at Helene's window as Paul presses the button to raise it, "She's crazy," the procurer grins. He then turns to the unseen woman and cries, "Shut up!" Sirens are heard and Paul screams at his wife, "The police!" and throws his car in gear. He worries about the blood on the windshield and explains in his agitated roar, "We must find a car wash."
Cut to the car wash as the credits roll through the names of the main cast and crew to the director, and then cut to the TGV (the high-speed train) station, as an old woman, Paul's mum, Mamie (pronounced mom-EE), debarks. Now cut to the apartment as Helene and Paul dress for the day. Paul's mum arrives, he hides, Helene lies for him, mum leaves, Paul leaves, mum hides under the stairs and sees him. The next scene repeats this deception, as Helene visits her son, Fabrice, who lives with Florence, his girlfriend. The principal characters introduced, Helene visits the hospital where the whore is comatose in the ICU.
More than a Greek tragedy, Chaos reads like a botched send-up of expressionist drama, which hardly means it owes a great deal to that expressionist tradition. In a sense, its creators have managed to ape the rhythms and style of expressionist narrative, while turning that spirit on its head. In the end, Chaos is not an assault on the absurdity of established order, though it makes this pretense. Veteran film critic Stephen Holden of the New York Times calls Chaos "a gripping, feminist fable with a savage comic edge," which will undoubtedly color other peoples' opinions, but this isn't the kind of feminism I'm schooled in, though I suppose it takes all kinds. I'm not sure which men should feel "momentarily ashamed of their gender," though I'm probably biased, and missed the "film's unrelenting contempt for male ego." Even if those are feminist goals, I believe the film had other, darker motives.
Ultimately, Chaos is a Horatio Alger myth disguised as social satire, but then, that myth is absurd in itself; expressionist plays like Durenmatt's The Visit and von Kleist's Broken Jug - among others - argue that, if only implicitly. A rags to riches thing, a CanalPlus (the French Miramax and cable network) affair, a modern Cinderella story in French - not unlike Leonardo as Romeo - Chaos follows this brutalized woman to recovery, then tops it off with every prostitute's revenge fantasy come true, if prostitution is the oldest profession with every other job modeled after it.
Indeed, Helene is the vehicle for the audience's identification, with her Married with Children menfolk, Paul and Fabrice, bungling their way through domestic "anarchy," the film presumes that a middle class and white perspective is a universal. In one of its many simplistic potshots at contemporary lifestyles, a scene peopled with the "real-life" adolescent mŽnage - Fabrice, Florence, Charlotte - presents TV in the background airing a sitcom with the kids' garish "familiars" in clownish make-up. By contrast, Helene is not the Mrs. Al Bundy of that seminal Fox offering, but rather the slack-jawed, self-effacing cousin of Colista Flockhart's Ally McBeal character, that is, whenever she's not biting her lip. A kind of saint who is through serving the devil's brood, Helene discovers an avenging angel in the battered whore with two names, Noemie, Mikaila. Thoroughly uniting her darkest powers with her creative force, this angel Mikaila is a fighter since youth, rejecting first her commodification as a woman by her father, ultimately surmounting and getting even with all the tormentors of her past, including the recent past: Noemie even manages to get back at Paul and Fabrice for her new pal, Helene, who observes the process with her usual vapid mugging, switching between frowned overbite and slack-mouthed grin, poor thing. What doubtless keeps one watching Chaos is its rapid cutting, its dialogue simple and clean. But these technical feats degenerate into symbols in a fantasy reward-a-thon that movies tend to perpetuate, making Chaos no more than a slick Pretty Woman, which certainly has its boosters.
For my money, an illiterate junkie whore who learns the stock market after a lucky tip from a trick, and fucks a half billion bucks out of a Swiss banker, and arranges for the whole ring of pimps she worked for to get busted - the most evil one shot by cops - and helps out another streetwalker we never meet, and frees her little sister at the last minute from arranged sale into marriage, and takes Helene and Mamie (Paul's mum) and her own little sister to her new beach house, well... That may seem feminist to a guy at the Times who has to watch stupid movies for a living, but to these eyes it looked like a riff on some neoliberal moral tale/revenge thriller, the beating having purified Noemie for her transcendent defiance of the gravity that surrounds prostitution and all the other forms of capitalist, state, and religious terror, i.e. work. Call it patriarchy, if you must, no one can argue against the fact that we can do fine without that. Maybe my inclination to see the film with a woman was well-advised, after all, as I'm clearly missing the "feminist" point. However, that same weekend Penny Arcade hosted A Whore's Life at Tribes, featuring a reading and two original videos. While their tales of survival as addicted street workers covered all the violence Chaos revels in, along with a whole lot of sex the film explicitly avoids, neither of these two women from Vancouver - Leslie Bull and Ariel Lightningchild, a good ten or fifteen years apart - felt compelled to frame their experience in the lotto-driven terms of suddenly merited billions. At the end of the day, stylized conceit condemns this technically-contrived and narrative-thin conventional fable to a mere insult to the intelligence of anyone whose notions of gritty reality are not framed by the sale of soap to clean it up, but rather, by the fingernails we sharpen and cut to dig in beneath appearances and the surface of things.