At one point in A Little Chaos, garden designer Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) has a chance encounter with no less than King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman), for whom De Barra has been commissioned to design a part of the gardens for his new palace at Versailles. As the conversation comes to their mutual love of gardening, the king declares, “It is the ease of it I like. The ease.” A Little Chaos is a film of ease, a simple and gentle period piece. However, like claiming to have an interest in gardening just from watching Gardener’s World, there’s no real grit, drama or effort involved.”
The extensive history of the French court at Versailles is a fascinating tale, but Rickman’s sophomore turn behind the camera has little interest in anything beyond being a frothy little bodice show. De Barra is a fictional creation, hired by the garden’s true architect Andre Le Nôtre (Matthias Schœnaerts) to craft one section of greenery into an ‘outdoor ballroom.’ She’s keen, but her relative free-thinking approach ruffles many a powdered wig. Le Nôtre is sufficiently convinced, however, and he visits De Barra at her home in a scene to offer her the job in a scene so over-produced and shot that we half-expect Meryl Streep to barrel in for a musical number. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography is undeniably cheery but, much like the gardens of Versailles, the design and look of the film draws attention to its own artifice. Every bodice is too perfectly stitched, every candle shines too bright and every conflict feels too well-constructed. It’s all too handsome to be taken seriously.
Take Schœnaerts, for example. He’s normally an intense and brooding presence, and his build can’t help but stand out amongst the delicateness of his onscreen surroundings. As Le Nôtre, he’s given very little to work with. As is the way of these things, or rom-coms for that matter, he finds himself enamoured with the young woman he’s just hired. He and Winslet exchange mild flirtations amidst handsome woodlands and crushed velvet, but it all moves with that accursed ease so beloved of Rickman’s king (and indeed, Rickman the writer-director) that it threatens to grind to a halt. That it manages not to do so is down to the cast. De Barra is a typical Winslet role: standoffish yet charming all the same. The screenplay doesn’t give Winslet to work with beyond those traits and a sob backstory, but its the most any cast member gets here. Helen McCrory adds another snobby bint to her repertoire as Mme. Le Nôtre, and Stanley Tucci crops up in an extended cameo as the Duc d’Orleans. With wig and purple pantaloons in tow, he ramps up the camp for his handful of scenes, allowing him to overcome weak characterisation to steal these scenes, or at least what there is of worth to steal.
Construction starts on the garden as De Barra feels frustrations on all sides. Divisions of class ensure her competition seek to scupper her efforts, while Le Nôtre gives her dreamy looks of yearning. We might have cared more if there wasn’t such an air of artifice around proceedings. The gardens of Versailles were all about manipulating nature into submission, but A Little Chaos will not force anyone under its power. It’s simply too safe and lethargic; indeed, a little chaos of its own might have gone a long way.