Despite its failings there are moments to cherish and enjoy.
As period romances go, A LITTLE CHAOS has little original to offer a genre known for great passion and riveting romances, despite perhaps its decision to focus on two gardeners working on designing a new garden for Louis XIV. Andre Le Notre – the king’s garden designer has been tasked with creating a new space amongst the vast gardens at Versailles, and decides to take on assistant. This premise becomes the backdrop to a romance, as Le Notre’s (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) head is turned by applicant Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet); first by her modernist approach to garden landscaping and second by her own personal gardens. Their working relationship soon becoming one of unrequited and unbridled passion.
At first it feels as if the film is going to explore the tried and tested genre tropes of gender and class roles in French society. At the interview, Sabine stands out as an unknown, and more interestingly a woman, who piques Le Notre’s interest by adjusting one his garden designs. The other suitors for the position, arriving early to size up the competition are quick to dismiss her based more on her gender than any lack of qualifications. Later in the film, Sabine is very much the fish out of water as she attends society events at court. She’s clearly a character more suited to the garden than the court, but these ideas are never fully developed, and as such some of the film’s most interesting material is left unexplored.
Despite solid performances from Winslet and Schoenaerts there is little chemistry when both actors share the screen, leaving the romantic plot wanting. Much more interesting are the moments Winslet shares with Alan Rickman’s Louis XIV. A short scene in a garden which begins with her mistaking his identity is one of the most affecting of the film, but has little bearing on the overriding arc of the story.
Despite its failings there are moments to cherish and enjoy. A sequence featuring the society women at court peppering Sabine with intimate questions about her life goes from being overbearing to deeply moving as it’s gradually revealed that Sabine has lost a husband and daughter. There is a real sense of bonding and companionship amongst the women as there share similar tales of tragedy. It’s a shame the romantic storyline fails to deliver any moments as moving or as rich.
What’s most disappointing about the films exploration of Sabine de Barra and her modernistic take on landscaping is that the film never seems to consider using a more modernist and unconventional approach to the narrative and period genre and in doing offering something more radical.
A Little Chaos is a beautifully shot period romance that fails to deliver on the romance but is held up but a solid cast and some genuinely moving moments – especially those dealing with bereavement. Ultimately though, it’s a film that leaves you feeling that it’s a missed opportunity.