Dir: Coline Serreau. France. 110mins.

If there's one occupational hazard that seems to afflict comic artists at some point in their careers, it's the desire to be taken seriously and the temptation to dispense with laughter as a medium. This is what has now happened to writer-director Coline Serreau, who has parked her exuberant comic gifts in the studio cloakroom to make Chaos, a melodrama so dour it his hard to believe it sprang from the warm imagination that produced Three Men And A Cradle (Trois Hommes Et Un Couffin) and other popular and riotously funny social comedies of the 1980s and 1990s. Technically impeccable and faultlessly acted, Chaos has moments of considerable power, but its very relentlessness and one-sided social vision finally wears down audience sympathy. Coming five years after the failure of her 1996 comic fable La Belle Verte, Chaos marks a partial return to commercial favour, although a slump in second week returns suggests word-of-mouth may be negative. Serreau may have foreseen this: she is already in pre-production on her next film, 18 Years After (18 Ans Apres), a sequel to Three Men And A Cradle.

The pre-credit opening breathlessly sets the tone: a bourgeois couple (Frot and Lindon) rush out of their flat, presumably en route for some evening social function. Cut to them driving down a dark Paris street. Suddenly a young woman (Brakni) comes tearing towards them, screaming for help from three men in hot pursuit. Lindon's first reaction is to lock the car doors as Brakni -ostensibly a prostitute - implores them to open up. The men - clearly pimps - overtake Brakni, smash her face into the windshield, throw her to the ground and repeatedly kick her as Lindon and Frot watch in frozen horror. When the men leave, Lindon asks Frot for the box of kleenex, gets out and wipes the blood off the windshield. Then they drive off, leaving the prostitute lying half dead in the gutter.

As an indictment of urban violence and let's-keep-out-of-this middle class insensitivity, it is a chillingly effective sequence. But it is just the beginning of a long, heavily demonstrative broadside against the evils of prostitution and male-dominated urban society that is evil at the core.

The first part of the film works best, as we follow Frot's slow awakening from bourgeois automaton to socially-responsible woman. Ridden with guilt, she begins to neglect work and home life to haunt the intensive care ward where Brakni lies in a coma. Soon she is sleeping over at the hospital and thanks to her caring attentions Brakni slowly affects a complete physical rehabilitation. But her persecutors are still after her: one day, pretending to be relatives, they get permission to take her away in her wheelchair. Frot intervenes in the nick of time and snatches Brakni back.

The focus then shifts from Frot to Brakni, who in a long, harrowing flashback - which plays almost as a film within a film - tells the story of her miserable life: how she escaped an arranged marriage engineered by her Algerian immigrant father, ended up penniless on the streets of Marseilles, was forced into drugs and prostitution; how she struggled to reclaim her independence by secretly beating her habit and stashing away her earnings; how she learned to play the stock market on the Internet and graduate from lowly hooker to upwardly mobile call-girl; how, finally, she preyed on a terminally-ill wealthy Swiss businessman, emotionally blackmailing him into leaving her his fortune - the source of Brakni's problems with her employers.

The last section of the film concerns Frot and Brakni's concerted attempts to expose the prostitution ring, save Brakni's younger sister from the same pre-arranged fate she just barely escaped and liberate Frot from the dead weight of bourgeois servitude.

It's all a bit much and much too black-and-white, and Serreau opts for the sledgehammer over the scalpel, the cliche over the dramatic truth. It might have been more acceptable had Chaos been made as a bitterly comic satire. But Serreau indulges in realism with deadly earnest and what little humour there is comes across as mean-spirited or facile. Particularly surprising - for a director who has shown such generous understanding of male impulses in previous films - is Serreau's simplistic depiction of women as victims of male-dominated society and men as irredeemable creeps, criminals or sociopaths.

On the acting score, all is well. Frot is, once again, truthful and affecting, and newcomer Brakni, recently admitted into the troupe of France's prestigious Comedie Francaise, is searingly effective as the immigrant hooker fighting tooth-and-nail for her dignity, although perhaps at too great an emotional price. Lindon does a skilful replay of the harried loser that has become his speciality, but with a darker tonality. Former music hall star-turned-dramatic actress Line Renaud radiates in a secondary role as Lindon's neglected and widowed mother. Technically, too, the film is crackerjack, with special mention for Catherine Renault's kinetic editing.

Prod cos: Les Films Alain Sarde, France 2 Cinema, Eniloc Films
Fr dist: BAC Dist
Int'l dist: StudioCanal
Exec prod: Christian Gozlan
Prod: Alain Sarde
Scr: Coline Serreau
Cinematographer: Jean-Francois Robin
Editor: Catherine Renault
Prod des: Michelle Abbe
Costumes: Karen Serreau
Mus: St Germain (Ludovic Navarre)
Main cast: Catherine Frot, Vincent Lindon, Rachida Brakni, Line Renaud, Aurelien Wilk