New movies and music reviewed
A Little Chaos (dir. Alan Rickman, cert. 12A) is a lush drama telling the story of Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), who gets an unlikely job designing a water feature as part of the gardens of Versailles. André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) is the architect charged by Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) with creating the gardens of his new palace, who takes her on (contractually and romantically).
Her backstory of tragedy is teased out in flashback, and also in a scene among the women of the court of the Sun King (the trailer picks out the breasts-comparison bit rather than the sharing about children dying in infancy). There is a lot of cleavage and some dimly lit lovemaking, as André’s philandering wife (Helen McCrory) bestows favours elsewhere, and his admiration for Sabine’s engineering skill blossoms into love.
Clerk of works Thierry (Steven Waddington) oversees both developments – “I wondered when that fire would be lit”. An act of sabotage, which inexplicably is put down as an accident, has him rescuing Sabine from a flooded aqueduct – Winslet nearly drowns, again – and he holds the ring with the workforce.
Apart from an apparent divi- sion between workers and shirkers, we learn little of the conditions of the poor in 17th century France. What we are shown is the extravagance of the monarchy, moving the court from the Louvre Palace in Paris to Versailles, and the normality of the king’s having an official mistress (Jennifer Ehle) and several unofficial ones.
Two thousand courtiers were in permanent residence, helpfully explained by the king’s younger brother Philippe, Duc d’Orleans (Stanley Tucci), outrageously camp but tenderhearted. His German wife, the Princess Palatine (Paula Paul), takes a particular interest in Sabine’s proposed garden, even though visitors to the site see nothing but mud.
When Sabine first meets the king, she mistakes him for a horticulturist. When she is formally presented, she gives him a rose, “natural and unforced”, and the idea that it matches her character weighs heavy on the scene, but Alison Deegan‘s screenplay otherwise avoids too much symbolism.
It is in sum an amusing costume drama, with some historical notes, and a fanciful story that just about manages to seem credible. Rickman plays Louis as inscrutable (how does an actor do inscrutable?) while Winslet has a wide range to cover, from bereavement to bedroom, from courtly niceties to messing in mud in highly impractical skirts.
Awards for the costumes and sets seem likely. Any film tourism is likely to be split between Versailles and the English stately homes that were stand-ins.
Perhaps a disappointing note is that after all the effort – the imagination, the design, the water supply, the setbacks – the fountain is pretty but not that spectacular. It’s presumably based on the Bosquet de la Salle de Bal (the Rocailles).
The fountain is simply a background to an open-air dance space, and the final pull away has the king central to courtiers dancing around him to show the context of the larger gardens. He finally looks rather pleased, rather than inscrutable.