A sumptuously filmed period piece from Alan Rickman (his second film as director after 1997’s The Winter Guest), A Little Chaos might be lightweight in conception, but it’s brought to vivid life through some evocative atmosphere and a pair of sympathetic performances in the lead.
France, late 17th-century: King Louis XIV (deliciously played by director Rickman, who savors every line of dialogue) has commissioned an immense garden to be built at his lavish palace at Versailles, where he will soon move to with members of nobility in a strategic move.
The landscape architect tasked with designing the garden at Versailles is André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), and the penalty for coming up with anything that meets with disapproval from the King will almost certainly be death. Le Notre is recruiting gardeners to help him plan and construct the garden, but each of them lacks inspiration.
Enter Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a woman from the opposite side of the landscape spectrum – her proposals lack the structure that Le Notre has devoted his life to following. Le Notre initially dismisses her work, but reconsiders his evaluation, and soon employs De Barra to plan and oversee the construction of the garden’s centrepiece: an outdoor ballroom surrounded by a rock wall waterfall.
De Barra is a single woman with skeletons in her closet, and Le Notre is trapped in a loveless marriage with a wife (Helen McCrory). We know exactly where this is going, but the tender, soft-spoken performances by both Winslet and Schoenaerts give life to these characters and their developing relationship.
As expected in a film directed by an actor, A Little Chaos works especially well as a showcase for the talents of its cast. Alongside the leads, colourful turns are provided by Jennifer Ehle as Madame De Montespan, the King’s current lover; Stanley Tucci as the flamboyant Philippe, Duc d’Orleans; German actress Paula Paul as his sympathetic wife, Madame Princess Palatine; and Steven Waddington as a competing gardener who comes to assist De Barra in managing her crew.
Rickman, of course, has the choice role as King Louis, and the movie sizzles whenever he’s onscreen (which isn’t enough). His garden conversation with an oblivious De Barra – followed up with a brief exchange in front of the nobility (and his lover) – is the highlight of the film.
One detriment: the plotting occasionally feels forced, and a subplot involving garden sabotage – that eventually sees De Barra nearly drowning – doesn’t ring true. Some of the story elements here feel unnecessarily scripted, while the real-life characters and their situation should have provided enough interest by itself.
Beautifully filmed by Ellen Kuras (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Rickman employs a lot of medium shots and close-ups to tell the story, but his wide shots have a striking Peter Greenaway theatrical quality to them.
A Little Chaos is about as eventful as its title implies, but it’s an entirely pleasant journey to Louis XIV’s Versailles.