A Little Chaos

March 28, 2015
Kate Winslet in 'A Little Chaos' (2014)
Kate Winslet in 'A Little Chaos' (2014)

After watching Leviathan, a present-day tale with overtones of the Old Testament, it is almost a light relief to turn to A Little Chaos, Alan Rickman’s period drama of the Ancient Regime. Set in the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV, it is the story of a fictional landscape gardener, Sabine De Barra, and her attempts to introduce a little wabi sabi into the geometric perfection of Versailles and its surrounds, as laid out by chief designer, André Le Nôtre.

Not only will Sabine disrupt the relentless order of the gardens, she will cause Le Nôtre to reconsider his loveless marriage, and give the King pause for thought. Her very presence in a field dominated by men threatens the strongly patriarchal nature of the court, in which women are treated as decorations, even though they might exert a high degree of influence.

For Alan Rickman, who directs the film and plays the role of Louis XIV, this was a self-conscious attempt to look at the way women were perceived at the time, and to inject a subversive element. Rickman has even described himself as a “feminist”, although when a man calls himself a feminist it is like someone who doesn’t play an instrument calling himself a musician.

Kate Winslet is in top form as Sabine, having to find a balance between feminine display and the hands-on approach necessary to win the respect of her employers and workers. Anything but a coquette, she feels more comfortable with her sleeves rolled up, digging in the dirt, than taking tea with the flounced and powered ladies of the court.

She has arrived at this unorthodox lifestyle as way of providing for her household after the death of her husband. The story is told by stages in flashback, a device that feels slightly laborious. Her independent attitude exerts a growing magnetism on Le Nôtre, played by Matthias Schoenaerts as a sensitive soul trapped in a high-powered job. Although he is the undisputed master of order, we are asked to believe that he craves some respite from the rigidity of his designs and the brittle artifice of the Court.

As in all these bewigged sagas of old Versailles, the Court is a seething nest of intrigues, sexual dalliances and conspiracies. The prime exhibit is Stanley Tucci as the king’s brother, who is gay, but happily married to a German princess who tolerates his predilections. Le Nôtre’s wife is among the worst of the social climbers, while he is a Romantic forced to wear the mask of a Neo-classicist.

We know that the real Le Nôtre was low born, sharp-witted and pragmatic. Schoenaerts plays him a tremulous delicacy that seems hardly appropriate to a man who was seen to give the King a hug from time to time. Neither was he timidly deferential to the monarch’s opinion. They fought repeatedly about flowers, which Louis adored and Le Nôtre detested.

A Little Chaos is an entertaining but brittle film, strong on sets and dialogue, but never convincing in its imposition of 21st century issues and attitudes onto the world of the 1600s. It is a huge advance of Sofia Coppola’s lamentable Marie Antoinette (2006), but not in the same class as movies such as Dangerous Liaisons (1988) or Valmont (1989), which captured the essential amorality of the aristocracy, the decadent worship of wit and style.

By contrast, Rickman’s characters are restless beneath their wigs. There are pangs of conscience, feelings of ennui, and a general sense that they would prefer to be having a beer in the pub. Even the King takes a delight in slumming it during a scene with Sabine in which he pretends to be a gardener. One suspects that what we’re really seeing is the pleasure of an actor taking on the role of that absolute monarch, the director.

A Little Chaos
Directed by Alan Rickman,
Written by Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan & Alan Rickman
Starring Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory, Jennifer Ehle, Danny Webb
UK, rated M, 116 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 28th March, 2015.

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