The inherent contradiction of landscaping – wherein nature’s splendor is manufactured through rigorous human interference – is likely one most filmmakers can sympathize with. Like gardening, making movies is about presenting a beautiful whole to the public, while hiding the dirty hands and sweated hours that went into making the attraction look natural and organic. A Little Chaos, the Versailles-set period drama, maintains itself effortlessly when drolly snipping at the garish French aristocracy, but as a heartfelt romance with a green thumb, it’s a forced arboreal labor.
“There is an outdoor ballroom in the gardens of Versailles. In what follows, that much at least is true,” reads the opening text of A Little Chaos. It’s a simple and arch preamble that lets director and co-writer Alan Rickman clear away any expectations of historical fidelity one might come to the film bearing. As further suggested by the opening minutes, which see King Louis XIV (Rickman) donning many layers and locks to properly look the part of a monarch, A Little Chaos is an act of creation that would rather not let facts get in the way of a more impressive fiction.
If only the rest of this particular fiction proved as playful as those opening couple minutes are. Patches of fun and fancy crop up on the outskirts of A Little Chaos, but its centerpiece is a romance as rigid and plain as a parterre. That one half of such a centerpiece should be occupied by Kate Winslet is more the shame. Winslet plays Sabine De Barra, a fictional female contractor who’s hired by the King’s chief landscaper, André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), to build an outdoor ballroom that is but one bulb in the lush bouquet that will eventually be the gardens of Versailles.
Given royal decree to create heaven on Earth, the mismatched duo of De Barra and Le Notre gently butt heads immediately. André is a legacy member of the upper crust who’s trapped in a bad marriage, and is a strict believer in the power of order and budgets; Sabine is a widowed commoner with a tragic past, searching for her Eden in exterior designs that have room for a smidge of mayhem, an ounce of disorder, a little – well, you know. Give each one of the pair an advice-dispensing confidant (which the film does, before disposing of the characters like Mother’s Day gardenias the moment their function is served), and we’re well on our way to the classiest rom-com this side of the Renaissance.
But like your average perennial, what a good, steamy onscreen romance needs to come to life is warmth and nourishment. A Little Chaos, dry as a bone and flatly written as it is lit, can’t find a means to make its central relationship take root with the audience. Having given himself complete license to bushwhack through history as he sees fit, Rickman brings none of the spark to Sabine and André’s courtship that breaths excitement and color into much of what’s happening on their periphery.
Restrictive staging and framing throughout make rare moments of physical intimacy cramped and awkward, while the script’s idea of dirty talk includes discussion of “sluice gate reservoirs.” (This, unfortunately, is not a double entendre). Winslet, who’s often at her most believable and radiant while in the middle of grubby toil, can only do so much to salvage what she’s been given. “To be reckless is to abandon safety, but I think maybe it is safety that has abandoned me,” Sabine tells André of her ways. The look on Winslet’s face after having to deliver that particularly wooden bon mot is an Oscar-worthy performance in contained eye-rolling. It’s not as though she’s helped at all by Schoenaerts, who sleep-strolls through the film looking and acting like Viggo Mortensen on a heavy course of sedatives.
The crying shame of it all is that Rickman has a much better film sprouting at the edges of his D.O.A. love story. Helen McCrory adds some wicked spunk as André’s openly deux-timing wife, and Stanley Tucci all but runs off with the film tucked under his powdered wig during all-too-brief appearances as the King’s younger brother. Rickman himself gets a few cheeky scenes, like when Louis tries, and fails to run a prince-and-the-planter identity swap as a momentary distraction from his burdensome rule.
The third act lets Rickman’s feminine eye and interests finally come into full bloom, so by the end, A Little Chaos has grown a perspective, as well as a sense of humor. But the heartwood from which these brighter spots stem is a passionless, mirthless bore, and a well-decorated whole can’t disguise a dull core. The difference between a forgettable movie and a good one can often come down to simple pruning and trimming, but A Little Chaos is strangled by a central romance as artificial and lifeless as an office potted plant.