A story about an ordinary woman assimilating into crème de la crème royal society in 17th century Paris and falling in love above her station brims with potential, which makes our disappointment with Alan Rickman’s “A Little Chaos” that much more harsh. Romantic period dramas may no longer prompt audiences to stampede to the theater, but one need only turn to “Downton Abbey,” or the understated “The Young Victoria” to see that the genre doesn’t necessarily have to be somnolent. Then again, there are those that can put you to sleep quicker than you can say Nyquil, despite some good-looking costumes and loquacious language.
It’s 1682, and the gardens of Versailles need to be developed to appease his royal Highness, King Louis XIV (Rickman), who desires to make Versailles and France reach heavenly heights of splendor. Famous architect La Norte (Matthias Schoenaerts) is commissioned for the job, and his first order of business is to find a landscape artist who will assist him. Eventually Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a commoner with a reputation belying her status, is called upon. Her first encounter with La Norte proves unfruitful. “Do you believe in order?” he asks her, a question he knows the answer to after examining her previous blueprints. Sabine’s chaotic, free-spirited, style stands in direct opposition to La Norte’s traditionalist and Renaissance-influenced inclinations. Despite these contradictions, La Norte is persuaded to take Sabine on, and she swiftly begins to make good on her own reputation, adjusting the designs in order to add something unique.
Sabine’s traits slowly begins to draw La Norte closer, despite what his noble stature in society dictates or what his wife (Helen McCrory) might think. A visit to the countryside with one of La Norte’s dear friends (Stanley Tucci) proves to be the perfect setting for the beginnings of a blossoming mutual attraction, as Sabine starts to reciprocate La Norte’s feelings. But a tragic incident from her past prevents Sabine from opening up her heart to anyone, so the complications of social class, attraction, and personal reservations begin to simmer, as the garden progresses towards completion.
Despite her free spirit and chaotic nature, Sabine is a tepidly one-note character, which is only one of the most obvious faults in “A Little Chaos.” Winslet invests an enthusiasm and conviction worthy of the character’s bland individuality, which is to say that this is a minor performance from a major actress. It doesn’t help that the chemistry between her and Schoenaerts builds and then fizzles during their first encounter, never to ripple back into life again. The Belgian actor, who’s been impressive lately, doesn’t seem to find any inspiration here, whether it’s because of the British accent he is forced to incorporate for a French character (though, to our ears, the accent sounds fine) or because La Norte, like Sabine, is less interesting than a 17th century doorknob. So a love meant to anchor this story has next to no passion. The film’s languid pacing, garish transitions from scene to scene, and a conflicting tone torn between drama, romance, and comedy each drag the entire affair ever-so-sluggishly towards a laughably kitsch conclusion.
The film’s greatest assets lie in screenwriter Alison Deegan’s dialogue and Joan Bergin’s costumes. It’s the dialogue, not the structure and development of the screenplay which produce the aforementioned defects, that stands out through the various exchanges. That being said, some of the gardening metaphors had us biting our knuckles and shaking our heads. “Like a plant, I submit” might go down as the year’s most dreadful five words in film. Still, a scene between Rickman and Winslet in the garden, some of the exchanges between Schoenaerts and McCrory, and pretty much everything Tucci says, make certain scenes memorable, adding layers to characters despite the story’s efforts to bring it all tumbling down. And then costumes, a period drama’s best friend, are more extravagant, lavish, and colorful than anything else in the film. That includes the cinematography, which unfortunately doesn’t get to shine as brightly as a Parisian tale set in Versailles would demand.
In “A Little Chaos,” Rickman has directed a story containing not a single iota of passion, and represents one woman’s battle with her past without a single genuine fight. The film tries to be a drama, then a comedy, and then a romance, and it ends up failing to be anything but a laborious thing suspended in air, neither here nor there. Some intriguing dialogue, and a closet full of fantastic frocks, can’t help an impressive ensemble cast save “A Little Chaos” from being a lackadaisical picture, far removed from anything remotely exciting as chaos. [C-]