A Little Chaos

by Jake Mulligan

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday June 26, 2015

Matthias Schoners stars in 'A Little Chaos'
Matthias Schoners stars in 'A Little Chaos'  (Source:Focus Features)

Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is walking into a job interview. She's making a pitch to Andr Le Ntre (Matthias Schoenaerts,) who holds charge over the gardens of King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman, who also directs.) On her way into the building, she comes across a circular collection of opulent pots -- and she, as it compelled her to do so, pushes the most prominent among them off-center. That's the narrative of "A Little Chaos" in one unassuming image: A beautiful women walks into a stuffily realized world, and she imbues it with some much-needed soul.

Andr asks if she does not value order over landscape. She counters that she's attempting to devise a more organically French approach to design than has ever been exhibited before. He's smitten. She's hired. But it's not the construction of a grand garden that Rickman has brought us here to see -- we barely even see a plant put into place. (When we see the finished garden at the film's end, it's fair to laugh -- who did all this offscreen work?) Instead he has set himself up a merry-go-round of romantic partners. He's trying to stage a Shakespearean comedy under cover of vivid shrubbery.

Each of the primary characters is beset by sexual frustration and personal tragedy. Sabine lost her cheating husband and her beloved daughter at once, in a carriage accident. Louis XIV soon loses his Queen unexpectedly, leaving him far more vulnerable and lonely than a man of royalty would ever expect. Le Ntre is married to the explicitly villainous Madame Franoise Le Ntre, who cuckolds him and taunts him for his every attempt at happiness. (She soon sabotages the Garden, with a fury that's normally reserved for evil queens in fairy tales.) These are barely human beings -- they're just tragic backstories. They're dramatic constructs.

Winslet, for her part, tries to draw Sabine in a way that's not as flat as the page she was written on. But all Rickman gives her to play are life's loudest emotions: She's traumatized in one scene, then longing in the next, then orgasming in the one after that. Her performance is jerked around and weighed down by the dramatic demands of the script, until she sinks.

There's one running joke throughout: Rickman keeps giving us shock-cuts to shots of the royal court, lined up symmetrically in the center of the frame. The idea is that Sabine's sexuality and spritual vigor is going to break up all that pointless orderliness. But the film lays so many dramatic arcs and choreographed emotions at her feet that we never witness the liveliness she's supposed to be giving off. And so film is as schematic and preordained as the classical aesthetics it's supposedly railing against.