Not being a great film buff I’m quite fussy about what new films I go and see. But a film about Andre Le Notre and the construction of the gardens at Versailles, especially one with such a distinguished cast list, made me rush to my local Odeon the week A Little Chaos was released. I was going to give my verdicts – as historian, gardener and occasional film-goer – in this opening paragraph but then realised no-one would read on that if I was quite so upfront, so instead lets begin with Kate Muir’s review from the Times.
She summarized the plot: “Welcome to Grand Garden Designs, set in the fabulous park of Versailles! This week’s competitor is Madame Sabine De Barra, and her challenge is to build an outdoor ballroom with tiered fountains, and a touch of the seashore! Will she bring in the botanical build on time and on budget? Will the head gardener give her the green thumbs up?” [Times, 17 April 2015]
Read on to find out if Sabine succeeds…
Well of course she does because she is Kate Winslett …but… and there’s always a but in reviews isn’t there… if you’re expecting historical accuracy or the film equivalent of an article in Garden History then you’re in for a big disappointment. Luckily I wasn’t: after all we’re talking cinema here. But I thought that maybe it wouldn’t be too anachronistic or ludicrously too far removed from fact and probability. At least it wasn’t Braveheart or Saving Private Ryan and I suppose we should be grateful that Winslett wasn’t playing a female GI sent over by Uncle Sam to help win the War on Terror….woops sorry… the War on Nature.
The film has been widely reviewed – usually not very favourably – but very few commentators have actually passed judgement on the horticultural fact versus fiction elements. We know cinema is notoriously playful with the historical truth. And in this particular case why worry because how many people know that much about horticultural history or even Andre Le Notre, probably the greatest garden designer of the early modern era.
The film is directed by Alan Rickman, and he is blunt: “We play fast and loose with history anyway – it’s a joke that a woman like Sabine could have existed at all. It would have been impossible. The same with Le Notre.…. it wasn’t going to be a biopic at all.” Instead it was written as “a modern love story…[where] you forget about period and think, wow, a totally male dominated world in which women are just decorative objects” So “it’s a period movie that was also essentially modern.” That sets the tone for the film from the beginning.
Read one of the many interviews Alan Rickman has given about the film at : http://www.denofgeek.com/movies/a-little-chaos/34981/alan-rickman-interview-a-little-chaos-villains-doctor-who#ixzz3ZT9gzSYx
I started out planning to write a scene by scene analysis of the storyline, but found myself becoming more and more cynical as I did so. That’s a pity, because there are, despite all its shortcomings, some good things going for A Little Chaos. Above all it is a film about gardens and garden design, and celebrates them in a way that perhaps only The Draughtsman’s Contract and The Assam Garden have done before. And what it lacks in ‘truth’ is made up for in sumptuous visuals.
The film was very low budget and shot in a mere 40 days. At times that shows but at others the production makes a virtue of necessity. In particular Rickman could not afford to shoot in the gardens at Versailles themselves, or indeed anywhere in France, so everything was filmed at various stately homes and gardens in Britain.
Once I’d realised that, one of the fun bits of the film was trying to identify the locations!
It begins in Paris in 1682. Louis XIV, played by Rickman himself, has instructed Le Notre to create the greatest gardens on earth but even the great Andre decides he can’t do that all on his own and so decides to interview potential assistants. In fact Le Notre had been working at Versailles for 20 years by this point, and since he was born in 1613 he was almost 70 when the film is set – about twice the age of Matthais Schoenaerts who plays him, and in fact the same age as Rickman himself. [but I’m not going to nitpick]
We meet the ruggedly handsome long haired Andre in the office of his improbably grand chateau home. A series of middle aged men in wigs are ushered in one by one to present their plans. During an interval Le Notre looks out of the window to see Kate Winslett in a flamboyantly feathered hat slightly re-arranging the array of pots in the courtyard underneath his window…. moving one slightly off-centre to ruin the symmetry.
Winslett is Sabine de Barra, a widow supposedly earning her living from gardening and garden designs.
She presents her plans but Le Notre demands to know if she is “ a believer in order. Order over landscape?” “Order seems to demand that we hark back to Rome or the Renaissance,” she replies before being dismissed out of hand after less than 2 minutes.
Of course when all her rivals are dismissed eventually as dull or second-rate Le Notre calls at her house that evening unannounced, and after lighting all the candles he can find inspects her garden: I wonder what he thought of the plants that hadn’t been introduced elsewhere in the west – Tim Richardson reviewing the film for the Telegraph noticed datura and astilbe – and what’s that in her hand? [ Never mind I’m trying not to nitpick].
“This abundance of chaos – is this your Eden?” – he asks before, surpise surprise, giving her the job. Of course Rickman is arguing that “ you don’t get real chaos without somebody who understands the rules… and respects them.”
Sabine arrives at Versailles and is shown the site – a clearing in woodland – and told of the engineering difficulties of both draining it and bringing in enough water to run the spectacular cascades that Le Notre has planned. Her scheme, as amended by Andre, is, of course, as formal and ordered as the rest of Versailles.
Louis and his brother, the delightfully camp Duc D’Orleans, arrive in the rain to inspect the mud and the mess and make menacing remarks about the fate of those who don’t fulfill the king’s wishes. Of course Le Notre promises that Sabine’s ideas will work. When you read the logistical background to the scene it is very funny. Rickman reports that: “it’s pissing with rain. And you’ve got to shoot, and it’s outside, and it’s a scene with Louis, who would look out of the windows and say ‘I’m not going out in that’! [Laughs] I am Louis! I do not go out in the rain!” So you thank god for the fact that James Merifield [production designer] has made a shitty old piece of canvas canopy to protect the workers. And I said to them we could pull the canopy over, and Louis could stand under that! Lo and behold it’s in the film, with four poor sods holding these poles, getting drenched. There are holes in the canvas, the rain is dripping through, but nevertheless, Louis is standing under it. And we shot the scene with the pouring, pouring rain all around us. But at least Louis didn’t get wet!”
Now I dont wish to spoil the plot, but if you haven’t guessed you should have done. For the plot is as ordered and predictable as a Rameau opera. Sabine endures a predictable series of minor catastrophes – lazy workforce, jealous rivals, poor materials before she finally falls victim to Le Notre’s jealous and hard-hearted wife. Madame Le Notre sees the incipient passion between the master gardener and his assistant, and, being no saint herself, orders her own lover to hire men to sabotage the water supply, open the sluice gates and flood the site so that it won’t be ready on time. Cue for stirring music and purple prose. One dark and stormy night the wicked men set to work. A loyal workman alerts Sabine , and bravely she goes alone out into the wind and rain to close the sluice gates, but as she does so she falls in to the raging torrent and is about to drown when,surprise surprise, she is rescued by Andre.
Meanwhile elsewhere in the forest, in a Shakespearian comedic twist, Sabine goes to meet Jean de la Quintinie the royal gardener to exchange some plants. Yes, as Tim Richardson gleefully points out in his Telegraph review, “the film was actually name-checking Jean-Baptiste de la Quintinie, the man who created the Potager du Roi in the 1680s, and who wrote one of the greatest ever books on fruit and vegetables.” Unlike Richardson, however, I did not “struggle to control my excitement at seeing this figure of garden history made flesh, as he stroked his ripe pears ” and muttering “My little beauties.”
Unbeknownst to Sabine, however, Louis has decided to drop by, and sent DLQ away so he can settle down to an afternoon of wigless solitary contemplation in a bizarre little pop-up orchard in the middle of a clearing, supposedly at Marly, the smaller more private but equally grand royal garden. Then guess what? Sabine arrives and mistakes the king for the gardener – for at least a minute, before being treated to a royal monologue about marriage politics and the difficulty of being king – L’etat c’est moi . The kind of intimacy with servants for which the French court and Louis in particular was known [woops is that more nitpicking I hear?].
As a result Sabine is invited to court. Here the film’s small budget really begins to show. This is the court of an obscure minor German princeling not the greatest European monarch of his day. A mere handful of courtiers are in attendance rather than the hundreds if not thousands who were actually around. She is presented to the king, but in the process presents him with a rose from the garden at Marly where they met, and offers some advice on the transience of beauty etc etc… and so on and so on almost ad infinitum. Suffice to say there is what Tim Richardson describes as “much decolletage in the bocage.”
At this point if you haven’t been captivated by seeing the construction process behind the rockwork cascades,and if you haven’t been captivated by the idea of Matthias and Kate as slowly smouldering volcanoes, or captivated by her tragic back story…[to be honest none of which are TRULY captivating…you just keep wishing they were] then give up and go back to identifying the gardens and houses used as locations!
Lets start with an easy one: Where stood in for Le Notre’s house? There were more images above where Kate Winslett was re-arranging the pots.
And this? A very well-known bridge roughly contemporary with Versailles and its rather later lake.
And how about this hedge-lined avenue – ‘Queen Anne’s Walk’ – which was transformed into the entrance way to Sabine’s rockwork ballroom.
The development manager of the estate told their local newspaper: “It takes a lot of planning to host big productions such as ‘A Little Chaos’ but we love having crews here…Visitors seem to really enjoy seeing filming in process too – but it is not every day that you’ll see Kate Winslett walking through the gardens.”
As I’m sure you guessed they were Ham House, Blenheim Palace and Cliveden. Elsewhere Waddesdon served as a substitute for Fontainebleau, and there were other scenes at Chenies and Hampton Court.
More difficult, indeed probably nigh impossible to spot were the woodland locations. These were at Ashridge in north Herts, Chenies and Black Park which is next door to Pinewood where most of the interiors were filmed.
Interestingly the RHS thought the film good enough to promote National Gardening Week and National Open Gardens Day. However, as another reviewer noted, “apart from the initial digging out and glueing a few seashells on the walls, very little of the film seems to be about creating a garden. And the eventual unveiling of Sabine’s creation showed it to be one of formality, symmetry, order and structure and not a lot of chaos.”
So, at the end of the day, is the film worth seeing? Looking back with a few days hindsight I’m still glad I went and remember too that not everyone is as cynical as me. Sky Movies’s Elliot Noble called it “A Little Treasure” and said that “any quibbles are of little concern in what amounts to a hugely enjoyable display.” Meanwhile Stella Papamichael offers a more nuanced critique about ” a story strung together from a few documented facts, where what happens behind closed doors seems just as postured as the formal goings-on at court.” before concluding , nevertheless, that “it’s the stuff of Sunday night TV drama, for winding down with tea and cake. Very civilised.” Richardson is even more enthusiastic: “It has to be five stars. This is a ripe and juicy pear of a gardener’s film, with much to sink one’s teeth into.”
At the end of the day go and enjoy it [or not] if only for the wonderfully droll portrayal of Louis XIV by Rickman, looking at times as if he has just stepped out of a gilded frame, and for Stanley Tucci’s performance as his brother. But also go to see it for the very last scene: a tiny group of courtiers performing an elegant dance around Louis as he stands stock still, poised with hand on hip in the middle of Rickman’s miniature and simplified version of Le Notre’s famous Salle de Bal while the CGI pans upwards and outwards over the rest of the gardens at Versailles which are the real masterpiece on display.