“A Little Chaos” is a cinematic version of historical fiction — a genre far more popular in the world of book publishing than in moviemaking. Loosely based on Louis XIV’s intense obsession with creating an extravagant world at his palace and gardens at Versailles outside Paris in the late 17th Century, the film is a romantic romp that is set — believe it or not — in the world of high-minded landscape design.
Yet before you think, “What?! A movie about gardening?! Forget it!,” please read on.While the movie includes true historical figures like the Sun King (played by Alan Rickman, who also directs) and his longtime head garden designer, Andre Le Notre (portrayed here with his usual brooding intensity by Matthias Schoenaerts), the big conceit is the creation of Sabine de Barra, a mysterious widow (Kate Winslet) who is showcased as one of the most original landscape architects and garden designers of her time.As we know, it would have been highly unlikely for a woman to have had the opportunity to become an intimate of an absolute monarch like Louis XIV, or even given the chance to exhibit her gardening talents, back in the 1680s.However, if one can put that historic reality aside — and Rickman and fellow screenwriters Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan make that possible via their straightforward script — “A Little Chaos” becomes a highly enjoyable journey to ararified world 300-plus years ago.While we do see a great deal of the construction of an outdoor arena-style “ballroom” at Versailles (which still exists there, by the way), this film is about much more. The gardening is merelythe backdrop for a story of two attractive individuals brought together by a shared professional passion that gradually evolves into the realm of personal passion for one another.Winslet, once again, delivers a performance that captivates us with her beauty, sensuality and intelligence. She’s well-paired with Schoenaerts, perfectly cast as the driven Le Notre, who skillfully manipulates King Louis to accept his vision for the Versailles gardens.Rickman is spot-on as Louis XIVhimself, delivering a performance that is both regal and quite amusing as he portrays the monarch as a man well aware of his absolute power and authority, yet aching for moments when he can be a bit more “normal” and non-royal. A wonderful scene in a garden enclosure between Rickman and Winslet captures that felling perfectly.I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention another delightful performance — that of Stanley Tucci as the extremely funny younger brother of the king, Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, who adds frequent injections of humor throughout the film.Though the reality of a woman achieving the success Winslet’s Sabine demonstrates in this film likely would never have truly happened back then, the creation of her character here gives the movie a sense of contemporary universality that I found extremely engaging.“A Little Chaos” (a reference to Le Notre’s initial take on Madame de Barra’s approach to landscape design) is not a documentary, and so true French historians should simply relax and enjoy a film that takes us on a beautifully photographed cinematic romp into a past as it likely SHOULD have been.[s3r star=3/4]
Focus Worldpresents a film directed by Alan Rickman and written by Rickman,Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock. Running time: 112minutes. Rated R (for some sexuality and brief nudity). Opens Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center and on demand.