True to its title, not much in the way of chaos occurs in Alan Rickman’s sophomore directorial effort. In fact, most of the time affairs are the exact opposite of chaotic. Instead it’s a modest well-mannered period piece, taking part in the action of Versailles, France, 1628. It’s technically proficient – as most period pieces are – and the performances are solid across the board, though nothing outstanding. Rickman directs with competence but on the whole A Little Chaos is instantly forgettable—marked by a feeling of slightness and opting to pursue the safest routes for predictable romantic dramas.
Kate Winslet squeezes into the corset once again as Sabine De Barra, a lower class gardener hired by landscaper Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) who’s been commissioned by King Louis XIV (Rickman) to design the garden at Versailles palace. Notre choses her to oversee the construction of an outdoor ballroom in the middle of the gardens. De Barra is independent and strong-minded; unafraid to speak her mind. When they begin construction on the ballroom she’s placed in a major leadership role–giving orders to a team of mostly male workers, and often works in the muck herself.
De Barra believes the traditional French gardening style that relies on symmetry and imposing order on nature (perfected by Notre himself) is too conventional, rather purporting that her design will be something “uniquely French.” What about her design is uniquely French? We aren’t so sure. Rickman doesn’t explore this facet of the film in great enough detail.
During De Barra’s job interview Notre simply states that her design doesn’t follow “order” but it’s never made clear what he means by that. Chaos, one must assume, is the ultimate goal. The movie sets up an interesting conflict—made more significant by the fact that De Barra is a woman operating in a male dominated profession—between two intelligent and confident landscapers with vastly different views but doesn’t follow through with it. Rather, the gardening aspect of A Little Chaos is left largely untamed. During the scenes depicting the construction of the ballroom, we’re given no sense of the progress that’s being made – until we see the finished space at the very end – and we still never find out how De Barra’s particular design is different from Notre’s, nor how it lacks “order.”
Instead, the garden project is used as a backdrop for a more traditional romantic plot. Through Notre, De Barra is introduced to various members of French royalty such as the King’s brother Duke Philippe d’Orleanes (a wonderfully flamboyant Stanley Tucci giving things a much needed energy boost) and his wife Elizabeth Charlotte (Paula Paul). In no time, sparks begin to fly between De Barra and Notre. But this leaves us acknowledging that not only is the story predictable but the stakes aren’t very high either.
In 1620s France, extramarital affairs were commonplace among members of high society, while a fling with a commoner like De Barra was frowned upon. However, in the context of A Little Chaos, this breed of unorthodox relationship isn’t greeted with much opposition. For the most part De Barra is met with open arms from the French elite and treated with the utmost respect. The only person who openly objects to the relationship is Notre’s wife Francoise (Hope Hancock) who’s reduced to a cold, one-dimensional antagonist. Again, there isn’t much tension or conflict. Rickman chooses a minutely interesting narrative and then fails to make it meaty. De Barra and Notre’s romantic relationship comes off dull and inconsequential.
As Louis XIV, Rickman manages to give himself an important role even though the character doesn’t make much of a dent in the movie. Louis demands perfection in regards to his garden while Notre contents with the fact that if he fails, there’s a good chance he will be imprisoned or put to death. Yet, this conflict quickly goes away when Notre begins his entanglement with De Barra and Louis XIV goes by the wayside.
Towards the middle, Louis is given a moving scene. De Barra mistakes him for a gardener and the two have a meaningful discussion about life and gardening. The sequence brings Louis XIV down to a more humanistic level. In this moment, the two are engaging each other as equals, not as King and commoner. Otherwise Louis remains underdeveloped and distanced from everyone else, making it hard for us to care about him. When news arrives that Louis’ wife suddenly dies we feel nothing.
I wish I had better things to say about A Little Chaos. It finds a strong female protagonist in De Barra, who Winslett plays with assuredness and power. But the screenplay—by Rickman, Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan— is ultimately undercooked. The movie is lacking in substantial conflict and chooses to focus on the wrong story. The stuff about the creation of the ballroom is fascinating; I just wish Rickman had explored it more.