A Little Chaos, drama, rated R, Violet Crown, 3 chiles
Alan Rickman’s second directorial effort is getting kicked around by critics like a soccer ball, but you won’t get that from me. So be warned. Rickman has taken as his subject matter the construction of the elegant gardens of Versailles, and tucked away within that extravagance, the little fantasy setting of an outdoor ballroom in a corner of the design. Rickman, who makes up a part of his own excellent cast, takes great pleasure in the material and shares that pleasure with us.
An opening title card reads: “There is an outdoor ballroom in the gardens of Versailles. In what follows, that much at least is true.” History of this sort invites open season for playful conjecture, and Rickman and his co-screenwriters, Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock, have fun with a plot device that recruits landscape architect Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) as the unlikely winner of a design competition for the subcontracting of the outdoor ballroom. The major work is in the hands of King Louis XIV’s great landscape architect, André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), but Louis (Rickman) is getting impatient for the gardens at Versailles to be finished. He’s a family man, and he wants the children to be in the country for the summer.
Le Nôtre is famous for his perfectly controlled designs. De Barra favors a little chaos, and her job interview with the maître goes badly; but, plots being what they are, she ends up getting the gig after all because she has spirit. And that’s good, because it keeps the simmering attraction between her and Le Nôtre alive, if muted. Though there is a Madame Le Nôtre (played to acid perfection by Helen McCrory), she and her husband have agreed upon what some three hundred years later would come to be known as an open marriage. When she sees her husband’s new protégée she has second thoughts, but they come too late.
There are two primary plot strands. One follows the progress of Sabine’s hands-on work on the ballroom landscaping, into which she plunges up to her gorgeous elbows in muck. The other is her attraction to Le Nôtre, into which she finally plunges as well. Of the two, the landscaping is the more compelling passion.
There are set pieces scattered throughout. One of the best is a scene in which Sabine comes upon the king while he is sitting wigless and in shirtsleeves among his roses, and mistakes him for the royal horticulturalist. Winslet and Rickman, who sparked memorable chemistry in Sense and
Sensibility (1995), play it with charm. Another nice moment takes place in the women’s quarters at the palace, where the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan (the lovely Jennifer Ehle), and other women of the court let their hair down and indulge in some girl talk. The scene that follows, in which Sabine and the king exchange rose metaphors, is less successful.
There’s sabotage, skulduggery, wit, struggle, and eventual triumph, all bathed in beauty by cinematographer Ellen Kuras. That much, at least, is true. — Jonathan Richards
Mad, mad monarchy: Alan Rickman and Kate Winslet