The very first thing we see in Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos is a title — “There is an outdoor ballroom in the gardens of Versailles. In what follows, that much at least is true.” That means this is the sort of movie that, once upon a time, would have been called “an historical romp,” except this is more a romance than a romp, but the distinction is a fine one. This is not meant to be history, nor is it intended to be taken as such. I point this out because we live in an age of literal-mindedness that verges on the terrifying, and so we find people working themselves into a lather because the movie “distorts French history.” (Quick! How many here think Shakespeare’s Richard III is historically accurate?) What we have is essentially a confection — with a surprising degree of backbone — of no little wit and charm that presents historical persons in recognizable humanized terms. It’s not history, but it captures the flavor of a time in ways to which we — at a distance of 300-plus years — can relate.
Essentially, this is the story of a widow, Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet in the strongest role she’s had since The Reader in 2008), who is trying to make her mark and her way in the world as a landscape designer. Her somewhat unorthodox designs — not to mention the very fact that she’s a woman — catch the attention of head landscape designer Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoearerts), not in the least because she repositions a potted plant in his own forecourt. Combining her designs with his own, he puts her in charge of the construction of the garden ballroom at Versailles referred to in the film’s opening title — much to the displeasure of a number of other designers and workmen.
This also places her — more or less — in the court of Louis XIV (Alan Rickman), complete with all its rules, its intrigues and its social backbiting. What’s more, she becomes part of its intrigues by becoming romantically involved with Le Notre — and by being fairly outspoken with the King, following an encounter with him (one of the film’s chief delights) where she mistakes him (minus his court wig) for a gardener. Sabine finds that she not only has to prove her worth as a landscape architect, but as a member of this enclosed and fairly rigid society. Plus, she has a few demons of her own to deal with.
Little that happens within the confines of this situation can be said to be terribly surprising, but it makes for compelling entertainment — at least for the most part. If there is a central failing of A Little Chaos, it stems from the fact that the film has a tendency to break down into splendid set-pieces that work better on their own accord than as part of a unified story. However, there are so many of these individual moments — the aforementioned encounter with Louis, various encounters at court, an exciting sequence involving the near destruction of the garden ballroom, a wonderful scene where she describes the life of a rose, and so on — that it seems churlish to complain. It’s a stylish, intelligent entertainment for grown-ups with some splendid performances and numerous moments of at least near greatness. Perhaps it doesn’t need to be more than that. Rated R for some sexuality and brief nudity.