As the opening text acknowledges, there’s a large amount of fabrication at play in A Little Chaos, outside of the fact that there were gardens at Versailles. The question, then, is why Alan Rickman (directing and cowriting this film) felt like creating yet another tale of romance in the form of a period piece. It would be easy to assume that the film follows some factual knowledge of French landscape designer André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), half of the couple driving the narrative here. But no, the relationship between Le Nôtre and the entirely ficticious Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet) is purely a fantasy. And an unimaginative one at that.
The film opens in the 17th-century Paris of British productions (meaning: nearly everyone speaks English with a British accent), with King Louis XIV (Rickman) commissioning a series of extravagant gardens for Versailles. Because of the immensity of this task, legendary designer Le Nôtre brings in a new collaborator to help with a part of the garden. His choice is a surprising one: Sabine, whose status as a commoner and a woman is rendered moot by her particular skills with gardening. While many of the people in the aristocracy are shocked – shocked – by a commoner’s presence in the royal court, though, Le Nôtre finds himself drawn to Sabine’s gifts and direct approach.
There’s actually some potential with this storyline. Given the differing natures of the characters, it’s easy to imagine a version that finds Sabine and Le Nôtre engaging in a series of intellectual battles over their opposed gardening styles. Just imagine the voiceover in a trailer: “He’s a professional who loves order! She’s a commoner who wants to shake things up!” Sadly, A Little Chaos finds itself lacking even a small dose of chaos in the romance. Schoenaerts’ take on Le Nôtre could use some of the raw masculinity he usually shows in these types of roles. The character is bland; he’s stuck in a distant, loveless marriage to a woman just above his station, and it’s little wonder she’s taken to looking elsewhere for companionship. As for Sabine, her status as a widow is presented early on, but there are obvious clues doled out throughout the film that some greater trauma haunts her. And while Winslet is fine in the role when Sabine is not sharing the screen with Le Nôtre (a few scenes opposite Rickman being Winslet’s highlights), the scenes where Sabine and Le Nôtre share space lack heat. That lack of heat is made more painful by a series of scene-stealing characters, highlighted by Stanley Tucci’s appearances as the King’s not-so-secretly gay brother.
Of his three roles here, Rickman’s talents clearly lie in acting. The handful of scenes where the King appears are among the more interesting of the film, including one scene where Louis XIV mourns his dead wife while acknowledging the extent to which their marriage was arranged. As a co-writer and a director, though, Rickman fails to afford the film the subtleties he’s able to create as an actor. A Little Chaos, as an end product, fits rather squarely into the stereotypical period piece format. The thing that’s lacking is right in the title.