Film: The constant gardener

Director Alan Rickman stars as Louis XIV in 'A Little Chaos'

by Richard von Busack

We’re at the creation of Versailles in 1682. Here we find much flared-nostril romance between Kate Winslet as the garden designer Sabine de Barra, a gloveless worker who grubs and prunes, and Matthias Schoenaerts as André Le Notre, the stern official landscape architect. What impedes the courtship in A Little Chaos is Sabine’s longstanding trauma over the way she was widowed. More trouble comes from the objections of the witchily unfaithful Madame Le Notre (frequent villainess Helen McCrory).

King Louis XIV (director and co-writer Alan Rickman) moved to an estate carved out of swampland, the better to escape the Parisian mobs. The film suggests this move as a semi-religious mission, the seeking of a “window into perfection.” Rickman directs in a way that the king himself—who was only about 40 at the time—is the center of this film.

The romantic dialogue is badly stilted. If there’s chaos here, it’s a chaos of accents, most of them British. The best scenes are the ones that Rickman reserves for himself and Winslet. His majesty has a pleasingly candid friendship with the lady. Winslet’s curves and untidy golden hair are flattered by the outfits. She looks businesslike, ever-weary, with heavy eyelids and parted lips. Maybe she’s just short-winded from the tight corsets.

It is always fun watching other people work, but the landscape plans aren’t quite clear and Schoenaerts is too grim to fantasize about. Still, the supporting work is adept. Jennifer Ehle is beguiling as the discarded royal favorite Madame de Montespan. Stanely Tucci is the King’s well-liked homosexual brother “Monsieur” who frets about life in the country (“Muck, or beasts making muck …”). Rupert Penry-Jones stands out as an ironical chevalier, taking Sabine on her first tour of court; he has such suaveness, one wonders why Sabine doesn’t run off with him instead of with her lovesick Le Notre.

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