Southern Methodist University
A Little Chaos, directed by Alan Rickman, brings to viewers a fictional story set in the court of Louis XIV. It features a talented cast, including Rickman himself, Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Stanley Tucci. It looked promising: hopefully relevant to French history and potentially attractive to students resistant to subtitles. Unfortunately, A Little Chaos offers relatively little to historians or students of history as either historically based film or compelling fiction. It opened to some fanfare in England but was generally panned. Its US release went very quickly to video.
The chaos of the film’s title more accurately refers to the numerous plot lines. They do not work well together; none is entirely persuasive. Among them, the story of the construction of the gardens of Versailles in 1682 might be of most interest to historians and provide some points for discussion. The film conveys Louis XIV’s desire to use Versailles to overawe his contemporaries and his gardens to demonstrate his ability to manipulate nature. “Heaven shall be here,” he intones. Louis thus requires his famous chief gardener, André Le Nôtre, to complete the lavish gardens in short order. The film gives a sense of the tremendous feats of endurance and demanding work required of the workforce, many of whom died either in accidents or because of diseases associated with the marshland drained for the gardens. It also depicts the engineering feats required to pump water to the site and to move the earth in order to lay out the gardens, from dynamiting to level the terrain to building aqueducts to alleviate the water shortage. The king would prevail over nature no matter the difficulty. “The king’s ambitions are vast and ever changing,” Le Nôtre notes but advises “our task is to suppress nature to our will according to the current plans.” The unfolding of the Rockwork Grove project conveys the novelty and vibrancy of the impression Louis XIV intended Versailles to make on all who experienced it.
The film includes many scenes of the arduous work involved in the garden’s construction but that is not the central story of the film. It rather serves as background to the relationship between the fictional Madame Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) and the king’s famous chief gardener Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts). The chaos of the title is introduced as Le Nôtre measures the layout of the gardens at Versailles with geometrical precision, while Barra prunes free-form plants in her garden. The chaos she brings is reinforced by his unconventional choice to have her assist in the completion of the gardens. Le Nôtre selects her from a field of pretentious but experienced imitators of his work. Her challenge to the conventional orderly classical garden is made plain once she moves a plant in Le Nôtre’s garden.
This obvious and heavy-handed symbol of disorder is one of many in this film, which does not aim for subtlety. No message is left unstated. Another particularly jarring example occurs when Philippe d’Orléans, played for camp as an overdressed, overarch fop by Stanley Tucci, appears with both his male lover and his wife, the Princess Palatine, who says to Barra “Do you know that my husband and the marquis are lovers?” Such statements indicate the movie makers’distrust of the audience’s ability to understand what is before them without such explicit signposts. The film conveys a sense of the past as so foreign as to be incomprehensible, a sense heightened by the awkward speeches the characters give. Few of them speak in a natural cadence; Winslet’s dialogue is sometimes genuinely conversational. Only Rickman’s stilted pronouncements seem in character. But he is, after all, the king.
Ultimately, Barra’s design is chosen for the notable Rockwood Grove, Le Nôtre’s featured garden ballroom, because, as he concedes, “these gardens should be large enough to embrace forces other than my own.” In subsequent discussions, Barra tries to sway Le Nôtre from his commitment to order and classical gardening. She questions his harkening back to the Renaissance and to Rome, asking “isn’t there something distinctively French not yet celebrated by us?” It is ironic that ultimately the finished Rockwood Grove (La Rocaille) is ordered, regular, and geometric in appearance so that Barra’s naturalistic gardening disappears.
Barra is given an appealing feminist narrative in this film. She is an unconventional, independent woman, making her way with determination in a field in which she is a talented oddity. She works alone without male patronage, although Le Nôtre supports her and when other gardeners persuade her work crew to desert her, M de Durras, a competing gardener, comes to her rescue. Barra is courageous and talented and so hardworking that she is covered in dirt for much of the film. She impresses courtiers with the novelty of her unconventional beauty and lack of attention to style (surely an improbable response). Obstacles of all kinds fall before her talent and her forthright honesty. Barra is portrayed as unafraid to speak the truth to the powerful and as breaking the conventions of stratified seventeenth-century French society. Although she initially appears slightly discomfited in court settings, her genuineness wins the court over almost effortlessly. As the duke de Lauzan tells Barra, her novelty is that “you are no one where everyone is someone.” When finally formally presented to the court, Barra even rebukes the king for his treatment of Mme de Montespan, asserting that, like a rose, his mistress should be appreciated in all seasons, not only during the full flush of her beauty, and lovingly cultivated.
While Barra’s influence on the court and easy acceptance there stretches credulity, the film does give viewers some sense of Louis XIV’s court. Courtiers comment on court life as stultifying, isolated, and desperately in need of diversion. Gender relations at court reflect a self-contained world fueled by gossip, sexual intrigue, and mutual exploitation. An unlikely but affecting scene finds several ladies at a private gathering. Only there may they express genuine emotion. Elsewhere, it would not be fitting to disrupt the beauty of the setting and the perfection it is intended to convey. The women have all suffered painful losses of children and spouses, but unpleasant truths, such as death, are not permitted to touch the unreal perfection of the court. The film does offer intriguing glimpses of the court at the Louvre, Fontainebleau, and Versailles.
Another crucial story woven throughout the film is that of the king in his court. Rickman gives a particularly winning portrait of Louis XIV. The very first scene has his very young children, a nephew serving him breakfast, waking the sleeping king joined by his wife to form an affectionate family tableau. As the king dons his robes, he speaks to his children gathered at his feet about kingship “your demeanor they must admire and your words they must fear.” He announces to them his intention to move his court to Versailles. The king may claim absolute authority, but he does so as a doting father and devoted spouse, an image at odds with historical consensus about Louis XIV.
The most enjoyable scene in the entire movie is one in which Barra mistakes the king for a royal gardener in the gardens at Marly, where he, without wig or waistcoat, sought solitude to mourn the recently deceased Maria Theresa. He and Barra initially discuss plants, particularly his affinity for pears. After she recognizes him, they continue their personal conversation. The king shares his sorrow over the queen’s death: “she was nice and devoted to me,” Barra in turn reveals to him her personal life. When the king asks her whether she admires Le Nôtre, she responds: “he is most complete person I know.” This is just one of several interjections of modern psychobabble into seventeenth-century conversations. Another is the explanation for the demise of the Le Nôtre marriage; they no longer make each other “feel special.” While the dialogue is stilted, perhaps as a concession to gone-by manners, the interjection of pop psychology is presumably intended to make the characters’ motives more transparent. When Barra asks the king whether he might remarry, he confides that his choice would be inappropriate, referring obliquely to Mme de Maintenon. Barra suggests a secret marriage, and the king in turn gives her advice about love. After this exchange of personal information, the king advises that it is “time to face down our past to live in the present.” As this example amply illustrates, Barra consistently upends conventions both in her professional life and in her interactions with members of the high nobility.
Barra also brings chaos to the chilly Le Nôtre marriage, in the least compelling plotline of this film—the romance between Le Nôtre and Barra. The romantic pairing of Schoenvaerts and Winslet never gels. Theirs are mirror characters; both are honest, unpretentious, talented, and earnest. Presumably, he appreciates these qualities in her and she brings them out in him. Her interest in him is somewhat believable but Le Nôtre warms only slightly, even as he pursues and wins Barra. He remains cool to the point of indifference. Even aficionados of romances are unlikely to find this element of the film convincing. In their initial encounters, Le Nôtre delivers awkward speeches about gardening but gradually his rigidity is meant to lessen. To humanize Le Nôtre and perhaps explain his interest in Barra as well as his brooding, the film saddles him with a completely unsympathetic Mme Le Nôtre. (In fact, Le Nôtre would have been seventy years old in 1682, and there is no historical evidence of marital disharmony). Mme Le Nôtre is a courtier, avidly pursuing higher status, and he, as she reminds him, a mere gardener. She has cuckolded him, and he too is free to pursue other sexual interests. Their uncongenial relationship might allow for a discussion of elite marriage practices, but in the context of this film neither husband nor wife provokes much sympathy. He is disengaged to the point of hostility, whereas she is jealous of his interest in Barra and vindictive. In a ludicrously overblown scene, she arranges to have the waterworks tampered with so as to destroy much of Barra’s work on the Rockwood Grove. When Barra tries to salvage it, she is deluged by cascades of water, making the scene entirely too reminiscent of Titanic,
Another story line which seems completely unnecessary is Sabine’s tragic backstory, which presumably explains her initial imperviousness to Le Nôtre’s charms. Throughout the film, Barra is haunted by visions of a child crying “mama” and a little girl flitting through the woods. Her significance is not revealed until the consummation Barra and Le Nôtre’s relationship—a heavy-handed suggestion that this newfound love will free her from her past. The backstory adds a philandering former husband and the loss of a child with little connection to the other elements of the narrative. The flashback itself is too long, too jarring, and has too little relevance to the overall narrative.
The fact that it is a film about seventeenth-century France in English distinguishes A Little Chaos from other, more historically credible costume dramas. Vatel and Ridicule come immediately as better and more pedagogically useful models of this genre. Had the conventions of modern romantic comedies in A Little Chaos engaged viewers more thoroughly, the film might have afforded an opportunity, limited to be sure, to discuss the culture of the seventeenth-century French court. It is disappointing that the film does not serve pedagogical purposes better and that it is not sufficiently entertaining to generate greater interest in French history.
Alan Rickman, Director, A Little Chaos, 2014, 117 min, (Color), UK, BBC Films, Bureau The, K Jam Media, Lionsgate, Lipsync Productions, Potboiler Productions.