A Little Chaos is a Big Mess!

Directed by Alan Rickman
BBC Films, 117 minutes, R (Brief nudity, suggestive banter, anachronisms, atrocious dancing)

More than a hundred films have been made on the grounds of Versailles, but you can count on the fingers of a mitten the good ones. There must be something about all that Baroque excess that challenges directors to see if they can trump it. I'd personally rate Sofia Coppolla's Marie Antoinette (2006) as among the worst movies ever made. A Little Chaos is better than that, but that's no endorsement. It was directed and co-written by one of my favorites British actors: Alan Rickman, who also cast himself as the Sun King, King Louis XIV. Here's hoping he goes back to performing scripts instead of writing them or trying to direct.

Rickman puckishly signals from the start that about the only thing that's actually true in his story is that the symmetry of Versailles Palace and gardens is broken by an unorthodox outdoor ballroom whose design departs radically from the rest of the grounds. If only Rickman had the courage to lampoon the foppery of the Sun King's court straight on instead of through nudges and winks, A Little Chaos might at least have camp value. Instead, like Coppolla, he tries to do it through anachronisms. To that end, he imagines that royal gardener André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) has put out the rock garden ballroom to a competitive bid that he reluctantly awards to widowed garden designer/botanist/proto-feminist Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet). This pseudo-feminism is the first of numerous contrivances crow-barred into the script. De Barra never existed: she's a complete fabrication, as is Le Notre's open marriage, his unfaithful wife (Helen McCrory), and his own dalliances. In truth, Le Notre was nearly 70 at the time the ballroom was built, he designed it himself, and his wife was an elderly sack of woe whose three children died in infancy.

Oh wow, man. Where can I score some acid?
Rickman gets the excesses and sycophancy of Versailles correct in spirit, though the externals are laughingly wrong. Historians agree that the reign of King Louis XIV (1638-1715) was the apex of classical France, but that Louis' wars and excessive spending–especially on Versailles–ultimately set the table for the French Revolution. As anyone who has been to Versailles can attest, the place oozes lavishness, exorbitance, and wastefulness. Courtly life upon the grounds was even more over the top. (Part of its purpose was to divert the attention of potentially meddlesome nobles.) In other words, there's a plethora of source material, so it's even more mysterious why Rickman felt the need to break the historical frame in such ludicrous fashion. Winslet is part feminist, part bohemian, and part hippie. There's even a ridiculous scene in which she's seen cavorting in a forest of ribbons, strings, and trippy objets d'art that looks like it might hang in Shakedown Street outside a Grateful Dead concert. Of course, Winslet also has to be a tortured soul–she's haunted by her six-year-old daughter's death in a carriage accident–so she can have the requisite on-the-verge-of-collapse scene and be comforted by Schoenaerts. The less said about her near-drowning experience, the better. Yet it cannot be said that her role is the most embarrassing in the film. That dishonor goes to Stanley Tucci playing the bisexual Duke d' Orleans. His real-life counterpart probably was bisexual, but Tucci in a wig, fussy shoes, silk stockings, and waistcoat looks just about as bad as you can imagine he might. His expression is often one of bemusement, as if he's wondering what the hell he's doing in this train wreck. I asked myself the same question. But wait! It gets worse! If you can sit through the ballroom's inaugural limp-wristed, kerchief-waving dance scene without reaching for an airsickness bag, you're made of sterner stuff than I. 

I could go on, but you get the point–this is simply an awful movie. If movie technology had been available in the 1680s, an airing of this film would have prompted bored Frenchmen to jump from their seats and launch the revolution a hundred years earlier. A Little Chaos is falsely advertised–it's a mess of gargantuan proportions.
Rob Weir      

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