A Little Chaos

We all know the game where you pick petals from a flower, wondering if you will have the final petal in your hand having said he loves me, or loves me not.

Watching this film was a bit like playing that game, with my view see-sawing as though I had picked another petal of the flower. As with the game, there was never a moment where genuine dislike was an option – it’s more a case of how much enjoyment there is, and why the balance tips in either direction.

On paper, A Little Chaos has everything going for it. A cast of known and admired actors, a story set in the past with a slightly modern edge, sumptuous historical costumes and understated performances of almost literary dialogue. It sits there like a tantalisingly wrapped gift, with all the expectation that brings.

Set in France during the reign of Louis XIV, it follows the fictional tale of Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a widow who supports herself by designing and creating gardens. She and others come with their ideas to the home of Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), the real-life creative force behind the formal gardens at Versailles. Le Notre wants to commission someone to take over a portion of the design in order to keep up with the incessant demands of the king (Alan Rickman). Louis wants perfection – heaven on earth – and like every absolute monarch expects to have all things his way, with scant regard for anyone else.

After a less than encouraging interview with Le Notre – who seems dubious about her preference for natural disorder over architectural beauty – Sabine is surprised when he chooses her to design the rockwork grove at Versailles, thus putting many men’s noses out of joint. Her work is initially hampered by their jealousy, but before long she gathers a good group together and her plans begin to take shape.

Le Notre, who is almost monastic in his dress and style, is devoted to his work and has little time for the shallowness of most things at court. That said, he is expected to attend various events at the king’s pleasure and does have an effusive friend in Louis’s brother, the Duc D’Orleans (a gay, married soldier, entertainingly portrayed by Stanley Tucci).

While Le Notre initially seeks to keep Sabine away from the stifling effects of life close to the throne, it doesn’t take long for her to attract the attention of a number of people – including Le Notre’s own perennially unfaithful wife, the newly bereaved king and his long-time mistress. And while Sabine seeks to manage these new surroundings and people and still get her work done, she is haunted by memories of an unexplained past that regularly intrude on her waking hours.

Affairs in these circles are accepted as the norm – even encouraged – but in private conversations we can see the hurt and confusion such choices inflict. It’s interesting to wonder how differently the royalty and aristocracy of this era would have grown up and how their views on relationships would have altered if they had seen their fathers and mothers living faithfully together.

The pace of A Little Chaos is sedate, taking us in a leisurely way through the plot and concentrating lovingly on words rather than action – and very often on the gorgeous settings, gowns and faces of the cast.

The performances themselves are subtle, which is an excellent thing in a cinematic world that usually has about as much subtlety as a brick. Rather than overblown histrionics we get a gently delivered speech, an inclination of the head, the flicker of an eyebrow, or a moment’s pause for effect. Even the obligatory sex scene is presented more through suggestion than action.

This attitude is to be applauded but it does have its drawbacks. The burgeoning interest of Le Notre and Sabine for each other came as a complete surprise to me (and I was looking for it), so it would have been helpful if Rickman’s direction had encouraged a slightly less pared back approach on occasion.

At times the dialogue is also too self-aware for its own good. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is an actors’ film by an actor. The words are lovely, and well fashioned, but in the end they should be there to serve the story. They should not draw you out of the action to admire the prettiness of what was said as this lessens their impact, which is a pity.

On balance, however, A Little Chaos is an enjoyable film. It’s perhaps not as scintillating as it might first appear, but if you like fancy dialogue and costumes, you’ll be hooked.