At last – now the film is officially released, I can share my reviews with you – you can read about my first red carpet and how it fits into Kate Winslet’s repertoire by clicking on her name in the tag cloud on the right.
A Little Chaos is about the challenge to its opposite – order. André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts), head gardener for Louis XIV’s new palace in the country, has learned order from two sources that have gone before – his father, and the Greco-Romans. Nature will be made symmetrical and predictable and to do the will of men (literally) – until a woman (Kate Winslet) appears, asking to be part of Versailles’ great grandeur. Sabine is everything chaotic and pattern breaking: a freelance single woman with no great professional background, no blue blood pedigree, and whose personal garden is wild and unfettered. ‘Isn’t this your taste?’ Andre asks Sabine with a little derision when they arrive at the unmanaged site that will become the parterres and rockeries familiar today.
When asked, ‘do you respect order?’ Sabine answers that order informs her designs, but implies that something new is needed, something uniquely French, and female. Yet Sabine’s designs that André initially discards have order and are less dissimilar to the other applicants than they really ought to be – and quite unlike the cottage garden Sabine has at home.
At the British premiere, Alan Rickman made clear that while observations were factual (such as the king’s being watched sleeping by several people), that this is not historically true or sadly, possible for Sabine to have held the position she did at that time. Not being true means that the storytellers have to work harder for us to believe how this C17th woman got the attention of the King’s household. The question I wondered was – how did Sabine dare apply to work on the design of the garden of Versailles? How did she know about it? Perhaps she was invited to André’s for interview for pure curiosity, even to put her down – although he does not criticise her gender or audacity, only her designs.
Although this is of the initially-at-odds category of potential love interest, the first flash that they may be kindred is Andre’s belief about gardens – again, coming from his father (note traditional, even Biblical overtones). God started humans off in a garden, and only few have the gift to reclaim that… what? Beauty, freedom, divine communion, growth, balance… gardens lend themselves to many analogies, not spelt out by the film, which otherwise is God and spirituality free.
Symmetry and its opposite is found throughout the film. There are three threesomes: the married King and his mistress (two actually), Andre and his wife and Sabine; Sabine and her husband and his mistress; the duc d’Orlean (Stanley Tucci) and his “fat German” wife and his boyfriend. All of them are held by convention to the partner that doesn’t suit and held away from the one(s) that they want. And all must learn to cleave and leave. Sabine uses a garden analogy to gently steer the King from unkindness to respect of his lover (Jennifer Ehle), showing that care and tending are needed for a lasting flower, and to accept the cycles of nature mean that full bloom is not eternal for any of us. (I found that last part negative and untrue).
Whilst order – of the rockery amphitheatre – is being made out of the wild sloping chaos at Versailles, nature is still bursting in through mud, storm, and then some less than natural intervention involving Sabine’s invention which harnesses nature to create both attractive features and solutions for the garden as a whole. The human manipulation or oversight of nature leads to both triumphs and tragedies.
There are many opposites at work, trying to find synthesis – another being country and city (the established Louvre palace vs new Versailles) – and the paradox that rich high ranking courtiers are not free but at the whim of the king. Initially intimidating to Sabine, she quickly has something that courtiers don’t – freedom, independence, and a greater depth… and she becomes a celebrity at court. Sabine’s raw idea is melded with André’s to become a famous existing feature of Versailles’s grounds, though it’s still far from the garden she tends at home and not so easy to distinguish from the exacting manipulated shapes of the rest of the gardens. The relationships ends with more traditional symmetry – this is “ A Little” Chaos, not utter revolution.
Gardens as film making
As Thomas Betteridge wrote of Elizabeth (1998), could this be a film about making films? I felt that the analogy was a much stronger one in Chaos: budgets, crews, directors (Louis XIV as a studio boss, or producer?) – and Andre and Sabine as effective Arts department, building a set for the great show that ends the film (the dance of all the main characters around the King in his successfully completed vision).
There’s also the element of chaos as narrative: an inciting incident brings chaos to status quo, and the rest of the tale is about regaining it, with further chaos at a mid and end point before resolution – often a synthesis of ideas (as André’s and Sabine’s garden design) and a definite before/after recognisable finished product – in this case, from swamp to garden feature which has order but also a little chaos in it