For a landscape architect in 17th century France, there could be no more prestigious commission than the gardens at Versailles. The man who got the job was André Le Nôtre, whose credits also include the Palace of Fontainebleau. Behind this great man, however, stood a great woman, according to "A Little Chaos," which tells the story of Sabine De Barra, a humble gardener who designed one of Versailles' more spectacular features, the outdoor ballroom.
"A Little Chaos" presents Sabine, played with intelligence and a little hothouse humidity by Kate Winslet, as a woman before her time. She runs her own business and rolls up her sleeves alongside her all-male crew. Her wildly imaginative ballroom design -- luscious fountains and tiered rockwork decorated with seashells -- initially offends the orderly André (a chilly Matthias Schoenaerts). Nevertheless, he shocks the establishment by hiring her. Despite entrenched sexism and classism, Sabine is determined to see her vision realized. This would be a fascinating account but for one problem: Sabine is fictional. As in, she didn't exist.
That explodes a rather gaping hole in the middle of this ostensibly historical film, and it can't be spackled over by the pre-credits disclaimer. "A Little Chaos" wants us to be fascinated by a feminist who never was, then undermines her by casting an approving eye on the steamy affair she begins with her boss. "A Little Chaos" also cattily portrays André's wife (Helen McCrory) as the villain.
That's too bad, because the movie has its pleasures. One is Alan Rickman, doing triple duty as director, co-writer and world-weary Louis XIV. Another is the supporting cast, including Jennifer Ehle as a friendly courtier and Stanley Tucci as a barely closeted Duc D'Orleans. The dialogue (by Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan) is gorgeously baroque, as are the costumes by Joan Bergin and the production design by James Merifield.
In the end, though, you may feel a pang for the real André Le Nôtre. As far as anyone knows, he was quite faithful to his wife. And he really did design that ballroom.