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Almost exactly 30 years ago, Alan Rickman was appearing onstage as the Vicomte de Valmont in the first ever production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that poison dart of sexual cruelty. Now as a film director, he returns to pre-revolutionary France with A Little Chaos, a tale of unleashed passions among landscape gardeners. If it sounds racy, rest easy. The tone is pure Sunday night television — Downton in a powdered wig.
Rickman himself stars as Louis XIV, playing the Sun King as, in essence, Alan Rickman. Having tasked head gardener André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) with recruiting new blood for Versailles, the job is won by horticultural free spirit Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet). The brief is to create something “uniquely French”, a novelty given that Rickman has led the cast by example in keeping his own accent. (Kingly pronouncements are made in the familiar tones of West Acton.)
Eventually, Le Directeur leaves the stage to Winslet and Schoenaerts, the film passing through issues of drainage and shrubbery placement in search of what it all might mean. There is talk of the balance between order and nature, in a manner suggesting thematic importance. “Chaos must adhere to budget,” it is said, and the cast nod as if someone from BBC Films was nearby with a clipboard.
After romance stirs between Winslet and Schoenaerts, matters take a soapish turn. Yet the film’s strongest suit is its account of court sexual politics. In a strange, moving scene, the women of Versailles — wives and mistresses, current and discarded — collegially inspect each other’s bodies before detailing the tragedies of their lives.
Rickman grazes past things of substance but can’t overcome the sense that he’s really in it for the dressing up. The entire project is blighted by Schoenaerts, who lumbers about like an embarrassed teenager regretting his involvement in the school play. Otherwise, for an ode to disorder, all is neatly manicured.