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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

A Little Chaos movie review: necessary fantasy

A Little Chaos green light

Romantic and funny and smart and wise and just plain different. This is a historical costume dramedy romp about gardening. How cool is that?
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Historical fantasy! Nope, there are no dragons or wizards or magic. But it’s fantasy nevertheless. And of a very welcome sort. Of a very necessary sort.

In Paris in 1682, King Louis XIV is preparing to move his court from the Louvre in the city to the countryside palace at Versailles, and he wants gardens that he likens, not in any metaphorical way, to the divine: “Heaven shall be here,” he commands. No small task, then, for royal gardener and landscape architect André Le Notre. And Le Notre takes a real chance when he dares to hire, for one section of the gardens, freelance designer Sabine De Barra. This is no job for a woman, and indeed, in historical fact, there was no female garden designer at Versailles in the 17th century (though the gorgeous open-air ballroom grove the fictional one builds here is real and still exists on the palace grounds). But so what? This isn’t a documentary. It’s not an academic lesson. Male characters onscreen prance through the centuries doing all sorts of ahistorical things, so why can’t a woman do the same?

Of course anachronous adventure can never be the same sort of fantasy for women as it is for men, because even in pretend, it seems we have trouble letting women just exist without questioning their right to do so on their own terms. Sabine (the always magnificent Kate Winslet: The Divergent Series: Insurgent, Labor Day) may be a glorious fantasy for centuries past, a woman with her own money and her own independent life and her own wonderful work, but while the movie itself may not question her talent or competence or right to do as she wishes, there are men here — slightly buffoonish, if not actually villainous men — who scoff at her, who don’t want to see her encroaching on territory that is allegedly rightfully male. (There are men who doubt her at first but are won over by her, too, so they’re not all terrified idiots.) It would be so nice to see stories about women who don’t have an uphill battle to be taken seriously. Even if that’s even more make-believe still.

On the other hand, perhaps A Little Chaos works on another level: the one on which Sabine’s plight seems awfully familiar to what many women today would recognize, more than 300 years later. Do we really want to think of ourselves as still struggling though the Age of Enlightenment? Aren’t we supposed to be more enlightened that the powdered wig-wearing contemporaries of a ridiculous monarch?

But never mind! A Little Chaos isn’t a political film. It’s pure entertainment: romantic and funny and smart and wise and just plain different. It’s not just atypical Sabine that is new, but… this is a historical costume dramedy romp about gardening. I don’t even like gardening, but how cool is that?

This is Alan Rickman’s second film as director (a long while after his 1997 debut The Winter Guest), and he has filled out his cast with the sorts of actors who are a joy to spend time with. Winslet, of course, who brings her usual centered calm and quiet intelligence to a complex character, one who finds herself having to navigate the treacherous new environment of royal court, with all its potential pitfalls. Stanley Tucci (Wild Card, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I) as the King’s brother breezes in at one point and steals the whole movie in ways that are outrageous and hilarious and ultimately unexpectedly touching. Everybody’s new boyfriend Matthias Schoenaerts (Suite Française, The Drop) plays Le Notre, and by some sort of marvel, he makes it feel as if André’s relationship with Sabine could go in any one of many different directions, and that where it goes wasn’t inevitable. (That’s down to the script, too, by Rickman and two newcomers, Alison Deegan and Jeremy Brock.) And Rickman (A Promise, The Butler) casts himself as Louis XIV, which is an absolute treat to watch.

I really love this movie, and would like to see more like it. Even as much as this is something I think about a lot, there’s still a certain shock — a joyful kind of shock — to see a woman at the center of a such a fun, juicy story. I’d love for that not to feel so unusual.

first viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival


See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of A Little Chaos for its representation of girls and women.


green light 4 stars

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A Little Chaos (2015)
US/Can release: Jun 26 2015
UK/Ire release: Apr 17 2015

MPAA: rated R for some sexuality and brief nudity
BBFC: rated 12A (moderate sex)

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • bronxbee

    okay, this one’s definitely on my list! and i like gardening — an extra
    soupçon of pleasure for me!

  • FSLB

    I’m really looking forward to seeing this one! It had me sold at ‘Alan Rickman is Louis XIV’ but it’s splendid to know it’s worth watching for other reasons too!

  • Ambuj Singh

    It has Kate Winslet i mean what else you need

  • althea

    Could say the same thing about Alan Rickman.

  • Margaret Opine

    THIS MOVIE IS HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL…I’M GOING TO MAKE THIS MOVIE HIGHLY CONTROVERSIAL WITH JUST ONE QUESTION AND JUST ONE ANSWER. YOU’RE GOING TO WANT TO HATE ME BECAUSE MY ANSWER WON’T BE WHAT YOU WANT IT TO BE….
    QUESTION: IS THIS MOVIE A LOVE STORY? More people are calling it a love story but I say it is not a love story. And I say this movie makes for a good teaching tool in the classroom….just as it is; produced by a mature, experience, older man: Alan Rickman: it is a solid script about life. Maybe he forgot his script; maybe he didn’t see what he had produced but he did not create a love story for the character Madame Sabine de Barra.
    BACKGROUND:
    The movie is based on a real king and a real gardener and a real fountain design in a garden at Varsailles, France. But the character Winslet performs is fiction all the way. She did not exist then or now. The real gardener was happily married with kids and he was very quiet though he did gain fame for his work and demeanor.
    NOW BACK TO THE SCRIPT:
    Madame de Barra wants a career. She’s a married woman. Her husband tells her he has take a mistress because she is not available. A tragedy occurs and her husband and child dies. Sabine uses her talents to feed herself and a house servant lady and her family. She gains a contract to build a king’s garden display in Versailles. She and the king meet by happenstance; the king likes her but she is not a royal.
    THE KING’S ROYAL COMMUNITY & COMPOUND
    The King keeps everyone in the compound all year round. They all, most all, inter-mate. The King has a Queen but he has mistresses who give birth to his kids. (He loves his kids all of them). The king sees de Barra and spends the day with her in one of his gardens. He tells her a way that she can come to court so he can see her and keep his eyes on her. She does and she fascinates everyone in the court and the gardener saw it with his own eyes. So he rushed to get his mark on de Barra before the king could do the same.

    The Gardener wanted her. She wanted him too. She told him if he was hungry she’d feed him And so of course he made his move toward her for a carnal visit. But she was not quite ready but when she paid that visit to court and he saw what the king was up to, he made his move with no resignation. They consumated the ??? Love story or did he and the king have in mind all along to make her their mistress? She is not a royal. She slept with a married man. (He and his wife have an open marriage.) So. Is this a love story or is the truth of it as storytelling, and writing a script, ”a woman’s view” of being caught on the wrong side of a situation. Sabine had everything to lose, just everything, and the king and the gardener had nothing to lose. They were married until death but the men had mistresses. No plans for a divorce. When asked by Sabine the gardener told her: ”We will shape each other.” That’s exactly what he and his wife did. Sabine was never told anything about love or a promise of marriage. She slept with a married man and planned to continue according to the movie. The movie is a good teaching took for girls.
    TAKEN ON ITS OWN MERITS AS IT IS IT IS NOT A LOVE STORY. NO MATTER WHAT RICKMAN INTENDED HE DID NOT CREATE A STORY ABOUT LOVE BUT INSTEAD ABOUT INFIDELITY AND ILLICIT SEX AND A WOMAN’S LIFE ON THE EDGE OF RUIN. margaret opine

  • bronxbee

    WHY are you YELLING? it makes you look like either (a) a crazy person or (b) a troll or (c) a corporate shill. are you any of those?

  • I don’t think “controversial” means what you think it means.

    Also: Please stop shouting. What the hell?

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