A Little Chaos (2014): A commitment travesty

By Anna Knutsson @annaknutsson

Anna Knutsson is an MPhil student in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge. She is currently researching expressions of female involvement in medicine in Renaissance Florence.

Director: Alan Rickman

Cast: Kate Winslet, Stanley Tucci, Alan Rickman, Jennifer Ehle, Matthias Schoenaerts, Helen McCrory.

Lack of commitment is a constant complaint of many people in the modern west. Unfortunately for the period drama lover, this has now also extended into the glorious realm of hooped skirts and curvaceous furniture. Whilst A Little Chaos offers an appealing concept to its audience in the form of history from below, it fails to deliver. Following the gardener Sabine de Barra’s (Kate Winslet) work to create the renowned rock garden at Versailles, the film explores the role of women at work and the difficulties of getting over a personal tragedy, intermingled with a lacklustre love story and Louis XIV’s (Alan Rickman) search for freedom.

The story is confused with many additional elements, including the fictional Sabine de Barra/André le Nôtre (a landscape architect played by Matthias Schoenaerts) relationship, which feels like an afterthought added for dramatic effect. This renders the telling of the story jumbled, with numerous elements not incorporated into the overall plot development, becoming hollow distractions that fail to engage the audience either intellectually or emotionally. This is unfortunate as the idea of the film is promising and could have offered an interesting perspective on history from below, as well as women in work.

One of the fundamental problems in the film is Rickman’s Louis XIV. The issue is not so much the age discrepancies (Louis XIV being 44 at the time of the creation of the garden and Rickman now nearing 70), but Rickman’s continuous attempts to break down the image of the absolute monarch to reveal the humble man behind the façade. These include throwing out the famous phrase L’etat c’est moi(I am the state) in a memorable scene where the viewer is presented with the king nibbling on a pear and confessing to his gardener that he wants to marry someone of his own choosing. Louis XIV is continuously portrayed with affected authority, and the grandeur of the monarch never comes to the fore. He is shown to be a prisoner within the system that also controls Sabine de Barra. However, this system is never explored, leaving the feeling that there is no authority in either direction and further impairing the narrative.

There are, however, some redeeming features of the film – notably its impressive cast who perform their roles faithfully and its beautiful cinematography. Particularly striking is the internal view of Versailles as a building site, which bears similarities to the paintings of Dutch church interiors by Pieter Saenredam. The macro-shots of texture and form that occur throughout make the film visually appealing and create a sense of coherency, which is otherwise lacking.

The disjointed storytelling and lack of wit makes the film slightly dull and it is difficult not to compare it to Peter Greenaway’s 1982 masterpiece The Draughtman’s Contract. Set in a rural estate in Wiltshire, it tells the story of the interactions between a hired draughtsman and his patrons. Where the dialogue in A Little Chaos remains unwieldy yet empty, that of The Draughtsman is quick-witted and continuously fuels the story, most importantly giving a real sense of seventeenth century discourse. A Little Chaos, unfortunately, remains lacking both in historical integrity and an engaging storyline.

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