A LITTLE CHAOS is a plumb job for Alan Rickman, requiring him to shoot some pretty people in pretty surroundings, then being able to orate and flounce around to his heart’s content when he himself occasionally appears on screen. We are treated to the unexpected joy in hearing him say the word “macaroon”. Sadly he is also responsible for a clumsy and awkward little scene where a mourning King Louis takes an afternoon off to whinge about builders and eat pears.
It is 1682, and King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) commissions a lavish addition to his gardens at Versailles to mark the occasion of his holding court there the following year. For this most important of tasks, the King’s landscape designer André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) trusts in a female designer unknown at court, Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), inspired by her sheer creativity and the resolute resistance to order she shows in her work.
Ooo, she moved some topiary in her potential employer’s garden off-centre, how chaotic! Despite this clunky introduction to Sabine’s approach to her art, the film does flag up the importance of not imposing order on everything, lest you drain it of life.
Sabine is a lady, but only just. She’s still well out of her depth mingling with those at court. There’s a lovely moment when she is invited to a reception with the King at the Louvre, only to flee at the withering stare of courtiers as she pokes her head round the door. She likes to do everything she can in her work by her own hand and is not just accomplished as a designer of pretty things but also has an understanding of engineering. I liked how practical she is, though it might have been a bit much to show her try to assemble a performance arena almost single-handedly when her workforce deserts her, and later struggling alone with a sluice gate in a howling storm. There’s rolling you sleeves up and getting stuck in, then there’s silliness.
I don’t think that Sabine necessarily needed the past sob story (the set up to which, in flashback, is unfortunately hilarious) to give her motivation – can’t a woman just want to be an artist? Also did this story really need an antagonist working against her, and did it have to be yet another baddie played by Helen McCrory? Both of these additions just smack of artificially pumped-up jeopardy that imbalances the film as a whole.
Stanley Tucci, as always, is a scene-stealer as the King’s high-camp younger brother, self-described, and somewhat understating it as “the other end of the fashion scale” to everyone else (he’s even had some dainty little fabric shoe covers made for the rare occasion when he has to walk through the countryside).
It’s a nice touch that McCrory’s Madame Le Nôtre holds such power over her husband André. He has the fame, the status as an accomplished garden designer and gentleman, but he does not have the necessary skill required to make waves in the right circles. He needs his wife to charm, to speak to the right people and keep his name alive at court otherwise he is nothing.
Sabine De Barra may a fictional character, but who’s to say a woman didn’t have an idea that inspired improvements to the gardens of Versailles? History being male-dominated as it is, it would be unlikely to have been recorded if this were the case, so we can forgive Rickman and co-writers Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock a little artistic license to make their point.
I loved the details in both the grand and the more everyday settings – the peeling paint, the grime and the dust on windows, paper and implements for eating and writing strewn around every surface, the bizarre methods of European royal autopsies. It all looks lived in and helps to sell the wider world this story is part of.
Gardening as an “act of faith”, always striving to “recreate Eden” is a lovely idea, but one that needs to be handled, narratively speaking, with more delicacy, like you were tending roses, not chopping wood. The film’s pace is leisurely, which is fine, but it feels slow because the interlinking scenes between key moments are inconsequential. We needed more moments of beautiful stillness or a more profound script to make A Little Chaos memorable, as well as a far less awful CG-transition to go out on. SSP