Designing Woman

FilmChaosFemale gardener helps build Versailles in fun, if uneven, ‘A Little Chaos’

Alan Rickman is capable of so much more than his sublimely unctuous Professor Snape in the Harry Potter movies. Still, the chance to see Snape as King Louis XIV, the “Sun King” of France, in the period piece A Little Chaos, is just about irresistible. It’s a surprisingly good fit: both characters are imperious, uncompromising, and suffer fools not at all. And Rickman layers each character with an unexpected shading of sympathy.

Rickman also directs the film, and you can see why he was eager to cast himself in such a plummy role. It’s also the kind of popular reimagined history in which a plucky pre-feminist woman defies convention to make her way in a male-dominated society. Co-written by Rickman (with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan), it’s a romantic historical drama about a genteel widow eeking out a precarious living as a gardener who receives a commission to design a garden at Versailles. It’s a charming concept with a great cast, and a splendid showcase for star Kate Winslet, even if it doesn’t quite all come together.

Sabine De Barra (Winslet) is a young widow in 1682 Paris, supporting herself as a gardener. King Louis (Rickman) is building himself the magnificent new palace of Versailles in the countryside. Sabine dares to submit her plans for one of the royal gardens to the king’s legendary landscape architect, Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts, last seen in Far From the Madding Crowd). She’s treated as a joke by the other (male) garden designers vying for a commission—and by Le Notre himself, at first—but her plans intrigue Le Notre, who grants her a commission to plant a garden and build a waterfall for an outdoor ballroom at Versailles.

While Le Notre favors “order,” and Sabine appreciates a little “chaos” in design, they earn each other’s respect amid the pomp and petty rivalries within Louis’ circle. (Among the film’s pleasures is Stanley Tucci as the Duc d’Orleans, Louis’ flamboyant royal brother, whose humor consistently livens up the action.) Winslet is wonderful, as unaffected, sensible Sabine, working in the mud alongside her construction crew, and speaking with refreshing candor to Louis himself in a nice moment when she mistakes him for one of the king’s gardeners.

Another intriguing scene occurs at court, when Louis’ new favorite, Madame de Montespan (a lovely Jennifer Ehle) befriends Sabine and introduces her to the sisterhood of court ladies—mistresses, former favorites, dowagers—all of whom, like Sabine, have lost children, or husbands, or both. And all of whom are fascinated to meet a woman who actually does something in her life. These women deserve more screen time.

Schoenaerts’ Le Notre is perhaps too restrained and stoic, even for someone cautiously navigating court society. He never gets angry at his scheming wife (he seethes quietly, but never yells), nor quite loses himself in passion with Sabine. This is partly the fault of the script, in which his character fades into the background, partnering Winslet with gallant deference, the way the prince in a ballet steps out of the spotlight while the ballerina dances her solo.

Not that they don’t have some sexy and affectionate scenes together. (When Le Notre and Sabine take a break at the job site and share an impromptu meal of rustic bread and home-made pâté, it’s memorable as one of the first—and few—times that the guarded Le Notre actually smiles.) But Schoenaerts is such a compelling actor with so much presence, and Winslet is so vibrant, that we wish their characters were having more fun together. (By all accounts, the real-life Le Notre was a wit, whose droll humor earned him Louis’ fickle friendship throughout his life.)

Sadly, there is no historical evidence that anyone like Sabine existed, or helped build Versailles. But so what? The whole point of imagining such a scenario in a historical context is to encourage women to push boundaries in their own lives, to promote what Carolyn Heilbrun in her seminal book, Writing A Woman’s Life, refers to as “… the alternate life [the writer] wishes to inscribe upon the female imagination.” In that respect, for all its flaws, A Little Chaos succeeds beautifully.


*** (out of four)

With Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci. Written by Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, and Alan Rickman. Directed by Alan Rickman. Rated R. 116 minutes. PHOTO: Kate Winslet plays a fictional female gardener chosen to design a garden at Versailles in Alan Rickman’s ‘A Little Chaos.’

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