TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL: Set during the early-ish days of the French Old Regime, Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos is about a female “builder” (gardener, garden architect, landscape-gardener?) who gets hired by the royal gardener to build a stone outdoor ballroom of sorts at an in-process Versailles. The film re-teams Kate Winslet and Alan Rickman (be still, my Austen fangirl heart), and co-stars Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust and Bone Belgian heartthrob) and a smattering supporting cast including Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Ehle and Helen McCrory. This all reads so promising, right? As a fan of almost any film involving corsets, gender-bending roles and/or royal court intrigue (if you haven’t seen Stage Beauty, do it now), A Little Chaos should have been a slam dunk, but instead it was a long, dull, bordering-on-miserable experience.
Similar to Tommy Lee Jones’s The Homesman (which premiered at Cannes to mixed reviews and is set for limited release November 14th), this film props itself up as a feminist retelling of a classic era but falls under improbable storytelling, over-confident camerawork, and the “charm” of the male supporting actor-director overshadowing the “solid” acting of the lead actress. It opens on a slumbering Alan Rickman, who we come to realize is the august Louis XIV (aka the Sun King, aka an inspiration for the Louboutin red sole), being awoken by his children and wife as members of the royal court looks on. The rest of his plotline follows an existential crisis about being a king while also still being a man, a film trope about royalty that dates back at least to Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII, and facing his own age and *gasp* mortality, a similarly oft-tried but not-so-frequently true narrative trope.
We are introduced to the thoroughly fictional Sabine de Barra (a strong-willed, eyebrow-arching Winslet) as she goes to a job interview with the based-on-a-real-person Andre Le Notre (a gussied up, mumbling Schoenearts), the royal landscape gardener responsible for the gardens at Versailles, Fontainebleau, and more. She faces the male gardening establishment in the form of three other job candidates eavesdropping and gossiping about their competition in Notre’s corridors. Barra goes in confident and leaves shaken. Switch out the period garb, and this could be the beginnings of a mediocre romcom. To the shock and awe of all, she gets the gig of building an outdoor atrium/theater/ballroom on the grounds of Versailles, which translates to scenes that feel like slowed-down montages of ordering laborers about, breaking branches and moving stones all in a plain though logistically-unsound period dress.
Brushing aside all of the inherent-bordering-on-blatant historical inaccuracies (Notre would have been 50-something and it doesn’t look like his son succeeded him at the gardening game), A Little Chaos lacks the passion necessary to push such an outlandish period piece, and needed even more so for a passion project (with Rickman not only directing, but co-starring, co-writing and co-producing).
Simply, there is no chemistry between Winslet and Schoenearts, the film’s central “will they, won’t they?” plot. Yes, there are lingering looks, Winslet’s eyebrow arches, Schoenearts’s long locks flow in the breeze, but when it gets down to just the two of them alone, there just is no spark. Their interactions lack that stirring, that frenzy, that, dare I write, little chaos that is the lifeblood of romantic period pieces. When they do finally fall together, it’s less like a culmination of suppressed, overwhelming feelings than a wooden plank and a lean seal stumbling together…
The only real spark is between Rickman and Winslet during a moment of mistaken identities in a garden, but then that fades quickly as the scene lingers too long and the dialogue dulls down into cliches about men, monarchy, and universal frustrations. As for the rest of the cast, Tucci and Ehle are bursting from the seams and plot sidelines as the overtly flamboyant Duc D’Orleans and the fashionable Marquise de Montespan, Louis XIV’s official mistress waning into unfavor as she ages, while McCrory as Notre’s wife is watered down into a caricature of hypocritical jealous wife, with long glares and backstabbing antics.
The pacing is slow, the plot isn’t revelatory or entertaining, and I felt more electricity from my fallen-asleep arm. Maybe I went in with too high expectations, you know, to be entertained and/or enlightened, but… This is very likely the dullest 17th-century-set period piece I’ve ever seen and one of the worst, only above the likes of 1983’s The Wicked Lady and 1995’s Restoration. Just as I thought things couldn’t get that much worse than TIFF’s opener The Judge, the closing night film didn’t prove much better.