We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

A badly beaten young woman racing down the middle of a Parisian street to escape her attackers desperately hails Paul and Hélène, a middle-aged bourgeois couple en route to a social engagement. Her frantic attempt to secure help misfires when their automobile accidentally strikes her. Paul grabs some tissues and leaps out of the car—not to assist the wounded woman, but to wipe the blood off the windshield. He explains to Hélène that he wants to avoid involvement in a police investigation. Abandoning their victim, the pair make a quick trip to a carwash and then head for their initial destination.

By the end of this opening sequence, it appears that writer-director Coline Serreau’s Chaos should be retitled Callous, and we brace ourselves for a cynical exposé of man’s inhumanity like Gaspar Noé’s recent Irreversible. But as the movie unfolds—or, more to the point, explodes—the filmmaker fuses elements of myriad screen genres: social satire, melodrama, heist picture, feminist allegory, thriller, knockabout comedy, fairy tale. And Serreau’s labyrinthine plot is as complex as her tone is fragmented.

Smug Paul (Vincent Lindon), whose obsession with his appearance and meals identifies him as a refugee from Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, soon dismisses the accident from his mind, but Hélène (Catherine Frot) can’t stop thinking about it. She visits the hospital where the young woman was taken, arriving at the intensive-care unit just as the victim suffers cardiac arrest. The medical staff saves the patient, but she’s unable to speak or move. Hélène learns the stranger’s identity from police halfheartedly investigating the case: Malika (Rachida Brakni), a young French-Algerian prostitute pummeled by her pimps.

Driven by guilt and compassion, Hélène haunts the hospital, working around the clock to assist in Malika’s slow recovery. Male chauvinist Paul and the couple’s rapaciously womanizing son, Fabrice (Aurélien Wiik), are outraged by her absence, largely because there’s nobody to prepare meals and press their clothes. Serreau economically uses color to juxtapose Hélène’s two worlds: chic off-whites for the apartment, where she functions as an unappreciated servant; icy clinical blues for the hospital, where her contributions are increasingly welcomed.

At this point, Chaos starts living up to its title. Sharp-eyed Hélène spots two menacing-looking men sneaking into Malika’s hospital room and recognizes them from the accident scene. They flee when approached, but one of them returns, and she dispatches him in a manner more characteristic of a Three Stooges farce than a suspense picture. This perverse shift of mood is only the first in a series of surprises that provoke laughter at moments when we anticipate pathos or terror.

After Malika heals, Serreau devotes a half-hour flashback to her story, a whopper of a yarn that begins in Algeria in 1978 as Dickensian melodrama—nightmare family life, child slavery, heroin addiction—and, in a jaw-dropping reversal, transforms the victim into a conquering temptress who makes a fortune in international finance and seduces a doddering millionaire.

Having shared her history, Malika, abetted by an increasingly uninhibited Hélène, uses her keen mind and sleek sexuality to embark on the elaborate set of revenge schemes that, by the fadeout, repay her oppressive father and brothers and the sadistic thugs who forced her into a life of whoring and addiction, as well as shape up the contemptuous Paul and Fabrice.

Serreau couldn’t get away with her outlandish scenario without a resourceful cast. Dark-eyed, raven-haired Brakni depicts Malika’s broad spectrum of emotions with remarkable intensity and reckless physicality. (Her contribution to Chaos won her prestigious acting awards and has established her as a star in France.) Frot, in a more restrained role, has a wittily mature, Helen Mirren-like presence that smoothly integrates her character’s tart and tender dimensions. In his early scenes, Lindon appears to be just another overgroomed Gallic matinee idol, but as his character’s domestic life collapses, his performance and appearance broaden to the point of lunatic caricature.

Chaos posits that men are responsible for the world’s ills; the movie is about as anti-male as Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto. Islamic patriarchy initiates Malika’s anguish, which is only compounded in the male-dominated French underworld. Hélène’s victimization is less extreme but still so oppressive that her abandonment of her uncaring husband and son is as freeing, in its way, as Malika’s rebellion. (According to Paul, “A woman is two minutes of pleasure and years of hassle.”) Near the end of the film, a female character protests, “Not all men are bastards,” but Chaos’ ensemble of male rotters offers little to support that theory. Serreau’s sympathies are fully evident in her closing shot, which lovingly tracks the faces of four generations of strong women at peace—and no man anywhere in sight.

If Serreau’s energies are largely expended in keeping her plots, subplots, characters, and themes in motion, she nonetheless manages an appealing visual style. There’s a golden-hour twilight sequence of a tipsy Hélène trying to revive herself by a fountain that appears to be included just because it’s so lovely. The director takes major risks, occasionally to her own detriment, by attempting to address so many topics in such an assortment of tones, but her hit-and-miss ambition ultimately yields a kaleidoscope of a movie that’s compulsively watchable. CP