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Non-Review Review: A Little Chaos

Perhaps what is most remarkable about A Little Chaos is how deftly the film blends stock romantic comedy tropes with the trappings of a loftier period piece drama. A Little Chaos fictionalises the construction of the gardens at Versailles, undertaken at the behest of King Louis XIV. However, A Little Chaos uses this historical event as the backdrop for a series of quirky romantic misadventures. Matthias Schoenaerts plays André Le Nôtre, the stickler for order who is forced to take on some hired help to ensure that he meets the assigned deadlines.

Kate Winslet is Sabine De Barra, who is hired to design one of the garden’s fountains. Whereas Le Nôtre advocates for order, De Barra argues for a little randomness. The two are introduced at loggerheads, their philosophical positions made clear when De Barra presumes to move a single potted plant in a sequence arranged by Le Nôtre. Inevitably, attraction blossoms as the two find themselves working harder and harder to meet the targets set by the sitting monarch.

Another feather in her cap?

Another feather in her cap?

For all the promise of the title, A Little Chaos packs very few surprises. The formula is quite clearly honed, and it is easy enough to plot the various character arcs and dynamics across the movie’s runtime. Indeed, A Little Chaos might even have benefited from some tightening, feeling quite stretched across its two-hour runtime. At the same time, Alan Rickman has assembled quite the cast for his second film as director. A Little Chaos can count on a superb ensemble – both above and below the title – to carry it when things get a little indulgent.

A Little Chaos is not as fun or as playful as it might be. On the other hand, it looks and feels very impressive, with an occasionally clunky script brought to life by a talented array of actors.

Long live the king!

Long live the king!

A Little Chaos practically wallows in its romantic comedy stylings. Indeed, Le Nôtre and De Barra are positioned as stereotypical opposites that are clearly designed to attract. Le Nôtre likes clear lines and clean structure, while De Barra embraces the randomness of life. It is a seventeenth century Dharma and Greg, the classic “free spirit softens a cynical heart” story. It is quirky rom-com meets period drama. Just think of it as “You’ve Got Male Suitors.”

There is a certain fun to be had with that premise – taking all the style and flair of a period drama and infusing it with the familiar routines of the “opposites attract” narrative. In his first conversation with De Barra, Le Nôtre warns her, “In my profession, even anarchy is by royal decree.” Naturally, he comes to appreciate his colleague’s free spirit over the course of the film. “Your heart beats with passion,” Le Nôtre assures De Barra at one point. “Mine merely ticks.”

Flowery prose, eh?

Flowery prose, eh?

A Little Chaos runs through the classic tropes. There is a fun mistaken identity sequence which casts King Louis XIV as the wise and quirky old advisor to a younger couple in love. Just as De Barra helps him work through his own personal problems, he assists in hers. “The time has come to face our pasts and embrace our futures,” he offers. At a couple of points in the movie, Peter Gregson’s string quartet music plays over montages of emotional responses – the points where a more contemporary romantic comedy might place an inoffensive Coldplay song.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. Indeed, it is remarkable how fluidly and how affectionately director Alan Rickman and writer Allison Deegan transpose all of these tropes back to a relatively foreign setting. Romantic comedy is a genre as old as dramaturgy itself – Shakespeare codified a lot of what we know of the genre. However, Rickman’s film speaks the cinematic language of a much more modern variant. It would not be too difficult to transpose the story to contemporary New York.

Royal problems...

Royal problems…

Nevertheless, A Little Chaos cannot help but seem decidedly clunky in places. In particular, it attempts to anchor the character of De Barra in a rather horrific personal tragedy. It is to the credit of the script that it never attempts to drawn an overt connection between the randomness of that tragedy and the randomness in De Barra’s art style, but the movie is not quite sure how best to handle this piece of character definition. Both Rickman’s direction and Deegan’s screenplay are inelegant in how they choose to address this plot point.

The film tells the audience all they need to know about the accident in the first half-hour. Even if the finer details of the incident are concealed, the movie gives the viewer enough to figure out the heart of what occurred. Most of the film references the tragedy in a number of ways – there are some nice atmospheric allusions, and some awkward editing. However, the film decides to just spell out that tragedy explicitly in its final ten minutes; a point where it just feels like padding to the film. Rickman’s direction doesn’t help, as he frames it as the most cliché of flashbacks.

Wigging out...

Wigging out…

This is perhaps indicative of Rickman’s directorial style. A Little Chaos represents the actor’s first work behind the camera since The Winter Guest in 1997. He works well with actors – he allows the cast room to breath, never feeling like he rushes his performers in a particular direction and often finding moments of heartwarming emotion by allowing his cast to lead the way. At the same time, this approach can feel a little indulgent. Rickman is far too fond of reaction shots to showcase his superb cast. He also has difficulty with more abstract material.

However, in spite of this, A Little Chaos manages to hold itself together quite well. Rickman has assembled a fantastic cast. Kate Winslet is well-suited to the role of De Barra, bringing form to a character who might easily seem rote or one-dimensional. Matthias Schoenaerts has a much tougher role, playing the stick in the proverbial mud. However, he affords the movie a solid centre and a nice weight. The cast is rounded out by veterans like Stanley Tucci, Helen McCrory, Jennifer Ehle, Rupert Penry-Jones and Alan Rickman himself. They all do good work.

Dangling threads...

Dangling threads…

The world of Versailles is well-realised by a superb technical staff. While Peter Gregson’s music might be a little on the nose at points, it gets the job done. James Merifield’s production design and Joan Bergin’s costume design are both very stylish, allowing the film to feel classy and well-staged. While Rickman’s direction is not necessarily adventurous or concise, the film always looks really pretty. Ellen Kuras’ cinematography lends the film a rather classy aesthetic.

A Little Chaos is perhaps better than it should be. The film manages to be both so formulaic that it contains no real surprises, and so loose and indulgent that it drags at certain points in its runtime. However, a sterling cast do great work at selling the film. A Little Chaos is perhaps a film that could do with a little more chaos, but there is still some beauty to be found here.

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