“A Little Chaos,” actor Alan Rickman’s second directorial effort, could use a little chaos itself.
It poses anachronistic and canned feminism in a period costume romance that borrows heavily from the Masterpiece Theatre school of stately set design. This story of the fictitious Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), who supposedly designed the real-life Rocaille Grove for Louis XIV’s Versailles in 1682, bears comparison to Peter Greenaway’s twisted 17th-century puzzle-parable “The Draughtsman’s Contract” (1982), with the latter’s perversity a contrast to the former’s complacency. Rickman’s film is as contrived as Louis’s gardens, and much kitschier.
That said, the film is engrossing and entertaining if sometimes trite and manipulative and totally bogus.
Anything with Rickman in the cast is worth a look. Here, he summons sublime menace and effete ennui as the Sun King, seen at first romping in an appropriately king-size bed with his kids and queen. Then the wig goes on and voila, he is l’etat indeed. His biggest challenge apparently is sustaining the rococo, aristocratic bubble world of his court, which requires him to move it from the Louvre in Paris to a new, even more extravagant gilded palace at Versailles.
To lay out the grounds, Louis enlists his head gardener André Le Nôtre (played by sexy, 37-year-old Matthias Schoenaerts), who looks very spry for a man who was in real life pushing 70 at the time. Though recognized as a genius, Le Nôtre fears he might be losing his touch, so he interviews other landscapers to assist him. Despite initial reservations, he settles on De Barra, in part because her slightly skewed designs bring that “little chaos” he needs, and also because she’s played by Winslet and otherwise there would be no asymmetrical love story.
Unafraid of getting her hands dirty, self-reliant, and brilliant, De Barra embodies the kind of pop-you-go-girlism that would fit right in with a Disney animated feature. But she does come with some history (unlike the film); every 10 minutes or so she falls into flashback mode and sees the vanishing figure of a little girl in white. Shades of “Don’t Look Now.” She also antagonizes Le Nôtre’s wife (Helen McCrory), who is so wicked that a crack of thunder sounds when she orders a lackey to fulfill her evil plot.
Otherwise, despite her common origins, De Barra charms the entire French aristocracy, starting with Louis’s brother Philippe, Duc d’Orléans. Played by Stanley Tucci, Philippe is slightly less campy and outrageously attired than he is as Caesar Flickerman in “The Hunger Games.”
Such nice people, the spoiled and privileged elite. They’re just like you and me. Whatever compelled those troublemakers to chop off their heads a century later?
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.