In the current movie culture where male protagonists outnumber female ones more than eight to one, it might seem that any woman-led film — especially one with a creative, stalwart, independent heroine — should be welcomed. But it’s difficult to conjure gratitude, let alone excitement, for a mess like “A Little Chaos,” a lazy and off-puttingly anachronistic feminist fantasy about an 18th-century female landscape designer who finds love while creating and constructing one of the grandest spaces in Versailles.
There’s certainly potential in that premise, but Alan Rickman‘s visually gorgeous directorial debut is a tangle of plot tendrils that thwart one another from growing organically. (The film’s title could double as commentary on the script, which was penned by Rickman, Jeremy Brock, and Alison Deegan.) Rickman casts himself as Louis XIV and his one-time “Sense and Sensibility” co-star Kate Winslet as Sabine, a middle-class (i.e., low-born) woman whose architectural brilliance attracts the eagle-eyed respect, and later the discreetly gaping adoration, of the Sun King’s garden designer Le Notre (arthouse hunk du jour Matthias Schoenaerts).
How do you solve a problem like Sabine, who’s far less than the sum of her wanly imaginative, faultlessly guile-free parts? That question kept me a lot more in suspense than the little girl in a nightgown whose apparition sends the landscape designer into mini-panic attacks. There are several other Sabines: the hard worker who inspires the men around her, the dazed newbie flustered by the exotic customs and excesses of the court, and the husband-less career woman who rejects the subtle advances of the married Le Notre. (There’s also the hatless alien who can remain milky pale while clearing brush and hammering posts outdoors all day.)
But the core of Sabine is her inoffensive niceness — hardly representative of the philosophy of “a little chaos” she applies to her work. And to paraphrase a Women’s Studies slogan, well-behaved women seldom make for an interesting story or compelling characterization. The plot itself is a cluttered bouquet, touching on issues of class, trauma, power as spectacle, and the role of infidelity in a society of aristocratic arranged marriages, but all of it barely skims the surface. Strangely missing from that list is gender, because sexism is almost entirely absent in this universe. “Mad Men” showed how insidiously chauvinistic things were in 1960, and so Rickman’s decision to make his film a virtual gender-neutral paradise just a few years before 1790 isn’t just jarringly unrealistic: it’s an anti-intellectual cop-out.
Equally disappointing is the rest of the court, which is schizophrenically split between amiable men married to older wives who financially castrate their husbands (there goes the film’s feminism) and a handful of royal fixtures tired of the pomp and pageantry, whose numbers include the king and an extremely unlikely community of women more supportive of one another than the sisters in “Frozen” and “Little Women” put together.
Already as thin as a rose petal, the plot lurches slowly toward the obligatory romantic union between Sabine and Le Notre, his vindictive wife (Helen McCrory) be damned. There’s little love or passion to root for, though; Winslet and Schoenaerts’s passive performances don’t generate much spark. Only Stanley Tucci, in a minor role as a closeted nobleman, looks like he’s having any fun.
In one of the film’s most ludicrous scenes, the gloomy Sun King opts to have a heart-to-heart with Sabine, a stranger to him, in the outdoor ballroom she’s crafting. It’s perhaps important to see powerful figures like Louis XIV, the center of Europe at this time, as a heartbroken human being. But I would have loved to see commoner Sabine as a real person, too.