Paris, 1682: Alan Rickman’s second outing as director has been a long time coming. He follows 1997’s The Winter Guest with A Little Chaos which takes place at the French court of Louis XIV. Visually sumptuous, the decadence of the setting and extravagance of the 17th century dress of its characters belies their superficiality and unfortunately the same must be said for the film. Beneath the excess of wigs, make-up and frills there is very little of substance to a film which is not necessarily chaotic but definitely erratic.
A very loosely historical tale, it recounts the exploits of real-life master gardener André le Nôtre (brooding Belgian studmuffin Matthais Schoenaerts) and the entirely fictionalised Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet, who does her best to roll her sleeves up and give it her all) in creating the Rocaille Grove which actually does exist in the great expanse of the Sun King’s ‘heaven on earth’ at Versailles Palace.
Le Nôtre, a servant of geometric order and perfection, trapped in a loveless marriage with a despicably conniving and catty Helen McCrory, butts heads with Kate Winslet’s Simone, a free-spirited widower who likes the unhinged chaos of tea-lights in her own garden and isn’t afraid to upset the apple cart upon arriving for her interview by moving a potted plant from its designated spot outside Le Nôtre’s window. Not since James Dean has there been such a rebel without a cause. Repeated flashbacks which recall the loss of her child are a little heavy-handed but are given worthy treatment by the English actress.
Rickman, who seems to be half asleep for most of the film, employs his laconic baritone as a King Louis struggling with the trivialities of court, the loss of his wife, dealing with mistresses and the astronomical cost of his garden creation. Much to the concern of all the peasant folk over whom he reigned, I’m sure.
Over the course of their endeavours creative and amorous sparks will splutter more than fly between André and Sabine. At an early stage of the awkward courtship she proudly proclaims – at a chance meeting with the king incognito – that her beloved “Is the most complete person I have ever met.” Either the justification for this adulation was removed from the final cut of the film or de Barra had the misfortune of knowing only very mundane people in her past. The love story central to the film generates about as much genuine chemistry as a speed-dating session. “Your heart beats fiercely, mine just ticks” says André. I feel like I need CPR.
The elaborate maroon drapes concealing the green-fingered pair’s creation is pulled back for the big reveal much like the climax of every modern day home/garden improvement show. Although the strictly regimented perfection of the finished article is the antithesis of the supposedly bohemian chaos which characterises its conceiver, Louis and baying courtiers are stunned into amazement, breaking into spontaneous and perfectly choreographed dance as if to emphasise just how terrific it is. Sadly, Rickman’s film won’t instill you with the same kind of joix de vivre.