Rickman's period romance won't blow any minds, but it'll put smiles on faces.
A Little Chaos
It’s a little disjointed and a little lacking in imagination, but A Little Chaos, Alan Rickman‘s sophomore directorial offering, is kept afloat by a dazzling period aesthetic and some winning performances. It’s a classical romance set in 17th-century France but wastes no time declaring its out-and-out British-ness with a sly opening text stating that, aside from the fact that there were gardens at Versailles (the story’s key location), the film’s historical accuracy is essentially null. (We’re in France, but it’s that movie version of France we sometimes see where everyone has proper English accents.)
Kate Winslet stars (reuniting with Rickman for the first time since Sense and Sensibility) as Madame Sabine De Barra, a widowed commoner with an unorthodox eye for design who’s hired to collaborate with master landscaper André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) in designing a magnificent garden at Versailles for King Louis XIV (Rickman). The esteemed Le Notre (one of the film’s few actual historical figures) is a stickler for symmetry and immaculate arrangements, and though he’s one of the most decorated landscapers in France, the King-commissioned project called for a more radical, outside-the-box vision, provided of course by Madame De Barra.
We watch as Sabine earns the respect of even her nastiest naysayers, turning snobby aristocrats into gawking admirers of her incomparable work ethic and unique brand of outdoors artistry. There’s a clear theme of gender bias and the gradual upheaval of female stereotypes, but the messaging never feels preachy. Rickman’s more concerned with Sabine’s psychological turmoil than her social deficiencies. Sabine’s driven mad by blurred visions from her past, clues Rickman uses to build a modest mystery (the payoff isn’t worth the time, but it gives the story depth of flavor at the very least). The spark between she and Monsieur Le Notre fails to catch fire due to her disturbed mental state, but the dashing dilettante’s advances persist.
Throwing a wrench in both Sabine and André’s romantic and professional pursuits is Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory), André’s unscrupulous, socialite wife and promoter of his work. There isn’t much sizzle to the love triangle, which is about as schematic as it gets, but Winslet’s magnetism makes Sabine’s uphill battle through France’s wealthier set absorbing enough to buoy the film. She’s always been great in vulnerable roles like this; it’s breathtaking when she opens up and unleashes all of her character’s pent-up anguish and regret. She can make you hate her, too, as in her show-stealing turn in the Divergent franchise, but characters like Sabine are more in her wheelhouse.
Schoenaerts isn’t a great on-screen partner for her. He always looks sleepy and delivers his lines like some kind of broody vampire. Rickman has more success; when the King feels the full weight of the crown bearing down on his head, his subjects crowding in on him like lurching zombie servants, he finds solitude in Sabine’s company, her high-class naiveté making her a cooling oasis in a desert of empty affluence. A lovely scene between them in a private garden is the best in the film, a charming volley of breezy candor. Also adding a bit of queen-y fun to the proceedings is Stanley Tucci as the King’s prancing, purple brother, because that’s kind of all he’s been doing in movies lately.
Sabine and André’s garden is first and foremost an easy metaphor for their relationship, but it’s more enjoyably consumed as a stunning piece of set design (especially when it’s inevitably completed, cascading waterfalls and all). Costuming is always a primary appeal for a period piece, and A Little Chaos delivers with staggeringly detailed garments Rickman takes good care to show off (an early series of close-ups shows Rickman’s kingly attire being draped on piece by piece). The landscapes are scrumptious as well, particularly a country path tracing a sea of azure flowers and painterly trees.
The strange backdrop of large-scale gardening helps to alleviate A Little Chaos‘ unimaginative narrative structure, but once you fall into the film’s rhythm, you’ll be putting plot pieces together five steps ahead. Rickman’s storytelling is rigid as all hell (and cloyingly sentimental), but as actors, he and Winslet are on their game, and these two are always worth watching. No minds will be blown, but there’s enough whimsy and charm here to put a smile on your face.