Wednesday, February 10, 2016

A Little Chaos

Alternate Title:  Indulgence

One sentence synopsis:    A widow-turned-professional gardener is hired by the head landscaper of Louis XIV to build an outdoor ballroom within the gardens of the newly-constructed Versailles.

Things Havoc liked:As I've mentioned before, I'm entirely reliant upon trailers in order to determine what movies I should be watching, but then that's not always such a bad thing. Still, it has given rise to odd occurrences, particularly when a movie pops up in the trailer reels which never actually materializes as a released film. This happens every so often, usually when a foreign company finds itself with a tremendous bomb on its hands, and cuts its losses halfway through the marketing campaign, and before securing an American release. Generally these films are no loss, as they represent movies I was hardly about to go and see whether they were released or not, but once in a very long while, a movie I had circled as something potentially special disappears without a trace. So it was with a film I first heard of last year, mid-Doldrums, while slogging through the likes of White God, The Water Diviner, and Leviathan. It was a film set in 17th century France, an epoch of stockings and wigs, promising splendor, beauty, and the services of the incomparable Alan Rickman, one of my favorite actors working, taking on the dual role of the Sun King himself, Louis XIV, as well as the director's chair for the occasion. Though costume dramas are not really my particular cup of tea, I was excited for this one, and disappointed when the film failed to materialize in the US despite the promised release date. But it wasn't until earlier this year, with the news of Alan Rickman's passing at the age of 69, that I decided that while my rule has always been only to consider films in theaters, it was time to make an exception. And so, through methods I had best not admit to directly online, I was able to acquire a copy of Alan Rickman's final film, that I might give it the dubious honors I am capable of bestowing upon the capstone to a remarkable career.

It is the late 17th Century, and King Louis XIV is busy commissioning the construction of what will become his most enduring legacy, the magnificent royal palace of Versailles, a task that also involves the construction of the grandest gardens that have ever been produced. The task of playing the Sun King cannot have been a simple one, as Louis XIV was, both at the time and today, the effective model for absolute monarchs across Europe, a man of ambitions so towering that they consumed all of Europe in sanguinary wars, not once, but many times. It's therefore fitting perhaps that Rickman steals this show effortlessly, portraying a King whose every gesture, word, and glance is a calculated tool of rulership, and who has carefully constructed a heliocentric universe of courtiers, nobles, artists and officers around himself, whose task and mandate are to reflect glory upon him. Rickman's imperious, deadpan delivery and expression, honed over the course of many films (recall him from Dogma if you want an idea) is a perfect match here, whether instructing his grandchildren in mid-speech asides on how to be both loved and feared, cutting dead a mistress who has outlived her political usefulness with a single barbed word, or expressing his delight in such subtle terms that the object of such delight needs the services of a translator to determine if she has offended or pleased the King. Indeed, some of the weirdest sequences in the movie involve the King striking a pose of power and authority, and everyone nearby instantly and literally falling into orbit around him, forming a tableau of power and central authority for any who should choose to be watching.

But while Rickman is the main draw for me, he's not the main focus of the movie, which is ultimately a romance, featuring one actor I'm a fan of and one I'm generally not. The former is Matthias Schoenaerts, a Belgian actor I remember well from The Drop, Rust and Bone, and Death of a Shadow, the Dutch sci-fi film I encountered back in 2012 during my annual showcase of the Oscar-nominated Short Films. He plays the legendary gardener (these apparently exist) André Le Nôtre, the (real) head gardener of Versailles, a position which, back then, was roughly the equivalent of a Cabinet post today. Schoenaerts underplays the role considerably, which is the right call, as his character is both a nobleman of the Ancien Regime and in a position to both enjoy unlimited access to the King's Ear, and receive all the blame if anything goes wrong with Versailles' construction. An early scene, in between interviews with would-be subordinates, has him remark that despite being on such close terms with the King that he is allowed to dine with him, failure in his task will almost certainly mean execution. The other party is Kate Winslet, whom I first met in Titanic and needed a long, long time before I could forgive her for that fact (the same was true of DiCaprio). My grievances aside, Winslet is a fine actress, as roles from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Finding Neverland, or Little Children will all attest to. Here she plays Madame Sabine de Barra, another gardener selected to assist Le Nôtre in completing a particular feature of the gardens, a widow who supports herself through her work (not as rare in 17th-Century France as you might think), and who falls in love with her boss. Conventional though this all might be, Winslet and Schoenaerts have a nice chemistry on screen, butressed by the fact that these are both middle-aged veterans of the games of politics and gilded disappointment that has been their lives.

But if I wanted to watch a conventional romance, even one with Alan Rickman, I have quite a few to choose from, so what makes this movie special? The pageantry, for one. Rickman's directorial style is very lean on dialogue and long on landscape, using a Wes Anderson-style geometric shot construction to get the glory and the splendor of Versailles across, a world of wigs and gowns and stockings and poisonous politics, wherein everyone is quite happily sleeping with everyone else in "arrangements" that only the French could possibly keep track of. So it is with Stanley Tucci, who steals the show as the Phillipe, Duke of Orleans and brother of the King, whom he plays as an endlessly talkative, flamboyantly gay ornament of the court, whose wife, Princess Elizabeth of the Palatine (Paula Paul) has come to a perfectly happy arrangement with the above, aligning herself with Madame De Montespan, chief Mistress of the King (this was an official position in those days). Fortunately, the film doesn't expect us to remember who is who among the dizzying array of Madames and Seigneurs that we are presented with, but hints constantly at the byzantine complexities that surround the characters, getting everything across, as a rule, with inference and wordplay. Indeed, the dialogue in the film is almost relentlessly off-point, using metaphor and voice tones to say what is actually going on. It's a strange effect to someone used to more traditional Hollywood fare, but the resulting film feels a lot richer for it, as the characters circle around one another dispensing charm and venom in equal measure. A particular gem is Helen McCroy, playing Schoenaerts' cold-hearted courtesan of a wife, a woman who has elevated her husband through marriage and does not intend to ever let him forget it, even as she dallies with other men (as does largely everyone in the movie). The music, meanwhile, by cellist Peter Gregson, complements the effect with baroque splendor, a chamber orchestra to accompany a world that is consciously artificial.

Things Havoc disliked:The dialogue in this film is quite rarefied, and while I would hesitate, generally to cite that as a negative, it can actually be quite hard to figure out what the hell people are talking about (or doing) as a result. An extended sequence, midway through the film, where a promenade in the countryside stumbles upon what appears to be a pagan altar, seems to serve no purpose whatsoever except to allow a rider to announce that someone is dead, while the confusion of Winslet's character concerning the intrigues of the court translates to nothing more than confusion for the audience on the same subject. I could not tell, for instance, which mistress was and was not on the outs with the King at any given moment, which is a matter, as it turns out, of some importance, nor have I any idea why Winslet, approaching the most important job interview of her life, would decide for no apparent reason to begin messing around with the potted plants in her prospective employer's front yard.

And yet, strangely for a movie which turns in circles this lofty, so lofty that a critic as experienced as myself was lost several times, the actual plot of the film, as so often in romances, is relatively shallow, particularly in the second half, wherein Schoenaerts' wife spontaneously develops a Mean Girls' streak to her, and decides to sabotage a royal construction project for no reason other than spite and to no effect other than getting herself in a great deal of entirely predictable trouble. In a film where literally everyone has a mistress or a lover, where she suddenly develops a jealous streak sufficient to be willing to risk summary execution is beyond me, but we require a "crisis" of some sort to drive the formula plot forward, so there. All is forgotten, of course, by the end of the film, as is the "little chaos" of the film's title, a subject it took some pains to set up and then fails entirely to pay off. Much time is devoted to the fact that Winslet's gardener has shocking (one might even say British) ideas regarding landscape and horticulture, preferring the chaos of nature to the rigid order of French-style gardens (believe it or not, I know what I'm talking about). And yet having established Winslet as a Gardener who Doesn't Play By The Rules (imagine an 80s cop movie with this concept), she then spends the rest of the film playing by the rules. The final result, an outdoor ballroom with a cascading fountain (which I have seen in the real Versailles) is indeed very pretty, but has no element of Chaos within it, Little or otherwise.

Final thoughts:    A Little Chaos is the sort of movie that isn't commonly reviewed on this website, mostly because I don't care for formula romances enough to bother to see them. But to my surprise, despite the criticisms I leveled at it a moment ago, Alan Rickman's second (and sadly, final) directorial effort is an effortlessly-charming little film, one that speaks well above the intellectual level of its plot, and which imbues its admittedly formulaic structure with warmth and light and a soft-hearted cheer that is entirely fitting of the purpose it has unfortunately taken on. I am, of course, indisputably biased regarding this movie, being both a Francophile of long-standing, and an abject admirer of Alan Rickman's work. But given the jaundiced eye I generally cast upon romantic period pieces of this sort (the less I have to discuss Pride and Prejudice, the happier everyone will be), a movie that wins me over despite that is perhaps worth giving a shot to. And if nothing else, A Little Chaos serves as a fine tribute to a legendary actor, who will most certainly, by this critic at least, be missed.

Final Score:  7.5/10

Next Time:  A yearly tradition returns for another installment!

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