Published Aug 04, 2015In 1682 Paris, the educated landscape architect Madame Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is selected by noted landscape artist André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to aid in the design of an outdoor ballroom and garden at Versailles for King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman). Though an unconventional choice for such employment at the newly founded center of political power — prior to King Louis XIVs reign, Versailles was merely a hunting lodge for Louis III — her plans strike the famed artist for their creativity, their beauty and their lack of conventional structure (hence the title: A Little Chaos).
In part, Rickman's follow-up to the beautifully shot, but little seen, Winter Guest, is a slow-burning love story. The obvious contradictions — Le Nôtre believes in classic, formal design denoted by symmetry and careful spatial calculations, whereas de Barra has a more intuitive approach that works to great effect despite not having a discernable order — parallel the gender divide and open up the text to an "opposites attract" structure. But there's more here than just romance.
Though this flirtation exists in the periphery, A Little Chaos is more about the exploration of the royal cultural climate. De Barra, having an affable demeanour and genuine aptitude for engaging people from different dispositions with meaningful discourse — she actually listens and responds to people thoughtfully — surprises people with her grace and poise despite her lower class. The women remark on her cleanliness, being a gardener and all, while the men find her candour in conversation, and her subdued sexuality, intriguing. As such, she's witness to the many contradictions, rivalries and bizarre etiquettes of the court. And due to her grounded sensibilities, she's able to find the humanity in even the most performative of people, including the King himself.
This premise of intermingling classes is as representative of gender distinctions — finding the good in simplistic male order and the importance of feminine compassion and intuition — as it is the political landscape of 17th Century France. With the move to Versailles, the social climate of Paris and this previously rural locale shifted drastically. In a way, it injected a sense of chaos into the existing order.
For most of the film, these themes, coupled with the lush cinematography, intricate set and costume design as well as the impeccable acting from all of the leads, keep this period piece vital. It's often touching, occasionally funny and has enough insight about human nature and the artifice of social performance to transcend the constraints of the time period.
Where A Little Chaos struggles is in transcending its period drama and giving its female lead real characterization. Sabine, while likeable, is initially presented in a mostly superficial capacity; she's mostly a passive vessel of thoughtful questioning for other characters to project their basic underlying conflicts onto. Towards the end of the film, her eventual acknowledgement of lust — or chaos — ultimately leads to the melodramatic, but expected, act of sabotage from Le Nôtre's wife (Helen McCrory). And once this climactic arc plays out in a mostly clichéd fashion, the pat psychologizing and explanation of Sabine's character almost feels like an add-on to exploit the emotional component of her disposition and, ironically, create a sense of male categorization and order for her identity.
Still, until the concepts are muddied with narrative convention, there is something magnetic and occasionally profound about Rickman's otherwise standard costume drama. Unfortunately, there are no supplements on the Blu-ray to contextualize intent or clarify motivations.