The film A Little Chaos, which premiered a year ago in the UK and which I had a chance to see only yesterday, doesn't come bristling with historical details about its subject: the construction of a beautiful grotto-like outdoor ballroom-cum-fountain, the Bosquet de la Salle-de-Bal, at Versailles; or its setting: the court of Sun King Louis XIV. Nor are we treated, as we might expect, to views of the architectural wonders of Fontainebleau or the Palais du Versailles, then under construction. We get very little of the magnificent clothing of the period. Nor do we get what would have come cheaply - the harpsichord-driven music of Couperin or Lully.
All that was forsaken by the film for a largely personal, internal drama about certain characters, including Louis XIV (played by the late Alan Rickman, who also co-wrote and directed the film). A Little Chaos would seem to be not much more than an excuse to use Kate Winslet, who seems to have been away for a few years, perhaps to give a few other actresses, like Cate Blanchett, a chance to shine.
Winslet plays a fictitious character, Sabine de Barra, a horticulturalist and designer of gardens, who is summoned to Louis's court to assist his chief landscape engineer, Andre Le Notre, in the layout of the gardens of Versailles. We learn by stages that she has recently lost her husband and young daughter in an accident in which the coach they were riding in loses a wheel and careens down a hill. (Sabine feels responsible for the accident, and in the staging of the scene, she actually appears to cause the accident when, noticing the shaky rear wheel, she runs after the coach and throws herself in front of it, causing the horses to panic and the driver to brake suddenly.) But precisely why the film takes so long to inform us, via flashback, of the accident isn't clear.
Some critics have questioned how such a "modern" woman (i.e., one in control of her own destiny) could have existed in late 17th-century France - as if strong-willed, fully-realized women are an invention of the 20th century. As played by Winslet, Madame de Barra is an outsider at the court, a stranger to its self-fascinated ways. She is even underwhelmed by the king himself when she meets him, sitting alone in a garden, mourning the death of the queen Maria Theresa. Dressed simply, without his splendid wig and coat, he is charmed by Madame de Barra (who wouldn't be?) and pretends to be the king's gardener until his ignorance of gardening exposes him and she carefully curtsies before him. He insists, charmingly, that the illusion be allowed to continue for awhile.
When summoned to court (and again, nothing is made of the opportunity by the film's costume department), Sabine is introduced to the court's prominent ladies, many of whom are or have been the king's mistresses. After introductory pleasantries, they learn of Sabine's lost family and tell her of all the children they've lost to disease or to the king's momentary favorite. When the king enters, Sabine boldly presents to him a four-seasons rose and employs it as a metaphor for the women who attend him, whose fragile beauty can only fade with time.
Louis himself is presented as an absolute benevolent despot whose authority, though unquestioned, is tempered less by whim than by genuine feeling. As acted by Rickman, he comes across as an all-too-human ruler, grown so weary of the "crush" of the court at Fontainebleau that he's having it moved out into the muck of the country, a country that is "better for the children," one of whom cheerfully announces to him at the start of the film that he's soiled himself.
Despite setbacks, which include the sabotage to the construction of her fantastical amphitheater of Andre Le Notre's jealous wife, Francoise, the project is completed, and the film closes on a lengthy, CGI-assisted crane shot of the king wryly smiling while he dances in the center of Sabine's strange and beautiful dancefloor surrounded by the geometrical perfection of the Versailles gardens. CGI had to be used because the film was shot entirely in England.
A Little Chaos was the second film Rickman directed. His first, The Winter Guest (1997), starred Emma Thompson, and moved Stanley Kauffmann to comment that Rickman "has an extraordinary eye," and that his use of the camera "suggests certain Japanese filmmakers - Ozu, Imamura - with a sense that many shots have been incised, not photographed, and with a tendency toward the rectilinear, straight lines used vertically and horizontally." (1)
I don't know what Kauffmann would've made of Rickman's last directorial effort, except perhaps to remark on its singular lack of what one had every right to expect of a film about the creation of Versailles - namely, splendor. The acting is somewhat disappointing, given the great bookends of Winslet and Rickman in the cast. Stanley Tucci, as Louis's brother, the Duc d'Orleans, provides humor to his few scenes. The Belgian actor Mathias Schoenaerts is a little stolid as Andre Le Notre, even when he falls in love with Sabine and expresses his passion to her. In a tiny role, Phyllida Law, who is Emma Thompson's mother, and who also appeared in The Winter Guest, graces the scene of Sabine's introduction at court.
Winslet does all she can with a somewhat nebulous role. If some critics thought that she doesn't quite fit in late 17th-century France, it is probably due to the conception of her role, which seems out of place because it is so ill-defined. Alan Rickman is perfect, however, as Louis XIV, magnificent yet weary of his magnificence. He doesn't appear to be enjoying himself at the center of his world - until the transcendent moment when he dances with Sabine in the film's final shot. A Little Chaos could've been sharper, more rigorously upholstered with period detail that would've given it greater substance. But I found it a delightful distraction from the appalling run of the blockbuster mill.
Rickman liked playing Louis and directing his film: "The only way I could do it was because in a way, he's like a director, Louis, so you kind of keep the same expression on your face. As a director, you see everything somehow. It's like a huge all-encompassing eye that sees everything, and it's able to cherry pick; 'Move that,' 'Don't do that,' 'Do it this way,' ' Change this colour'. And I don't know where that comes from, but it does once you're given the job, and I have a feeling Louis probably would've been a great director." (2) Peace to Alan Rickman, but I think Louis would've been a terrible director.
(1) The New Republic, January 5, 1998.
(2) insidemovies.ew.com 9 September 2014.