The movie A Little Chaos initially sets out to do the impossible: sex up a story about André Le Nôtre, the seventeenth-century garden designer responsible for the meticulously curated landscape of the Palace of Versailles. It does this by imagining a scenario in which it was not Le Nôtre who designed a small, cleverly cascading Salle de bal at Versailles in the early 1680s, but a female landscape architect named Sabine de Barra, played intelligently by Kate Winslet. The movie itself embraces the visual precision of the best British period dramas, with each detail of manner, setting, and costume carefully calibrated on a level to match the expansive historical setting. The tone, however, is peculiar—it’s much more fanciful (the lush emotional whimsy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept coming to mind) than its designation as a period drama would suggest.
The plot of A Little Chaos attempts the kind of historical fiction that I find most intriguing—it inserts a plausible fictional character into a universe of famous historical figures whose philosophies and behaviors may be illuminated by presence of this new actor. The creation of Sabine de Barra further serves another master by seeming to expose previously hidden narratives that embrace modern sensibilities. A woman of middling social class, who, when pressed, answers honestly that she has “no blood” to speak of, skillfully executing projects in a male profession during an era where only the wealthiest women truly possessed a measure of freedom in their social dealings—what could go wrong? How could she not attract the appreciation and, eventually, romantic love of the stoic master Le Nôtre? The one true factual accuracy in the movie is that romance was in the air when Louis XIV held court at Versailles.
A confrontation between Sabine de Barra and Le Nôtre early in the film both exposes the trends in design philosophy that governed the creation of the gardens and presents a subtle realization of gender politics that I wish it didn’t. When Le Nôtre inspects the plans that Sabine de Barra submitted as a job application, he asks her, “Are you a believer in order?” She evades the question by answering, “Well, I admire it.” Pressed further, she continues: “Order seems to demand we look back to Rome or to the Renaissance. What I’m saying… surely there is something uniquely French as yet not celebrated by us which needs the rules of order to attain it.” Le Nôtre interprets her statements as an insult to his life’s work and gruffly dismisses her from their meeting. On the face of it, she does challenge Le Nôtre’s claim to fame, his celebrated ability to impose rigorous order on living landscapes prone to disorder. Mme de Barra’s designs, in contrast, consistently incorporate a modicum of chaos—one planter out of place in a complex concentric layout, creative structures that allow living plants room to alter the landscape as they grow. As Le Nôtre and Mme de Barra grow closer together, he ably tames her emotional troubles, which I shall not spoil here, in the same way he tames the wild foliage in his gardens. She serves his slightly wild inspiration, and he is her stabilizing benefactor.
The kernel of truth in the plot developments outlined above is that order was, indeed, Le Nôtre’s guiding principle. I cannot speak for the history of gardening, except to note that English gardens, even those designed by men, prized the disorder preferred by Mme de Barra. However, in the long history of landscape painting, assigning gender roles followed crisper lines. The landscape painter—characterized as virile, focused, inherently male—tames the landscape—unruly, unprincipled, feminine—through fixing its image on canvas. Doctrines suggesting that landscape painters adhere to celibacy and travel alone in the name of expanding their abilities to exert power over the wilderness held sway until far into the nineteenth century. Le Nôtre lets the “little chaos” that Mme de Barra represents into his life as a man would agree to marriage—a philosophical union that will forward his greater goals. Recognizing these fault lines of masculine/feminine and order/chaos in their discussions of gardens probably remains reserved for art historians familiar with landscape theory, but the film exposes these divisions further when Mme de Barra arrives at court in Fontainebleau and is spirited away by the wives and mistresses to a room where the women sit alone and talk. As the other women question Mme de Barra about her past, they begin to commiserate about the losses they’ve experienced—and which the king forbids them from discussing at court. Grief and sadness are clearly viewed as unruly emotions that should be confined to women’s spaces, while order reigns in court. It’s more upsetting that A Little Chaos cloaks this dichotomous position in a narrative that seems, on the surface, to celebrate a woman’s skill and intelligence.
It’s not like A Little Chaos is a movie that revels in facts. For example, re-envisioning Le Nôtre as a strapping, long-haired, dreamy-eyed man in his prime ignores the fact that he would have been sixty-nine years old in the year the narrative begins. Though it’s not entirely impossible that enough stars could have aligned for a woman, through unorthodox means, to attain a position in Le Nôtre’s orbit, this movie seems to deliberately evade suggestions of prejudice regarding gender or social class that someone like Mme de Barra probably would have faced. The courtiers treat her as a curiosity they can collect for her merits, and even that potential condescension is soft-edged here. The only malicious intent comes in the form of Le Nôtre’s wife, who functions as almost a cartoon villain—confronting and sabotaging, but never surpassing the level of “women’s” squabbles. The fact remains that, though Mme de Barra is pure fiction, there are movies like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo that operate similarly between fact and fiction and maintain the historical truths of the setting in furthering the story through newly created characters. A Little Chaos needed to choose between adhering to facts or proposing a truly fantastical history anchored in a familiar universe, instead of presenting a harmfully gendered, yet ultimately toothless drama that disappoints in its lost potential.