As I mentioned in my previous post, I thought I’d take a look at 2014’s A Little Chaos, a film about, of all things, the creation of the gardens of Versailles directed by the late Alan Rickman.
During my MA I did some stuff on the history of gardening, formal and landscape, but it’s been a long time since I gave it any thought. There was a time when gardens were an important way of communicating something about their patrons; these days not so much, but one could draw analogies, I’m sure. They were also displays of military might, which is kind of a weird concept — but organised large-scale construction and earth-moving played a big role in warfare in the 17th century. Parts of the gardens of Versailles were, in fact, built by units of the French army.
Aaaanyway, Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is the irrepressible innovator of the gardening world, while Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) represents the establishment. He hires her to work on Versailles despite her controversial designs, there’s lots of scenery-porn, Maria Theresa dies, Sabine has a tragic backstory, they begin to fall in love, etc., etc. He has a wife but it’s OK because she’s a dreadful woman. The King takes a personal interest in her because, being Alan Rickman, he’s a man of great soul instead of a Protestant-hating tyrant. And Andre Le Notre’s not 60 or whatever.
Good performances, of course; Stanley Tucci is fun as the Duc d’Orleans, Rickman is great, etc., etc. He doesn’t actually have a huge part, but he gives it plenty of the ol’ gravitas.
It’s not a very … satisfying … film, other than visually. It’s got all the sort of thing you would expect in a film about that place and time, with the hats and the dresses and the wigs and the big engineering works and lots and lots of plants. But as to narrative tension, not a huge amount.
What they’ve done with the history is interesting — the idea that gardening is culturally and politically relevant could do with a little more emphasis, perhaps, and of course Sabine de Barra herself is a fictional character, and somehow it all makes the whole thing seem a little … diffuse. It has a lot of historical stuff in it, but its relationship to its historical context is not always clear. I think the 17th-century building site is actually the most interesting part of the whole thing, just because of all its little details.
Also Kate Winslet gets soaked in a downpour and falls in a body of water, because of course she does.
It’s reasonably diverting, it’s got lots of good performances and it’s on UK Netflix; I’m not sure it necessarily carries a lot of weight as a historical film other than the usual pageantry, but I still enjoyed it.
I am really hoping to see Dragon Blade, speaking of weight as a historical film.