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