The few proto-feminist inklings in Alan Rickman's A Little Chaos wither away by the end, trading in chaos for the usual order.
Alan Rickman's A Little Chaos begins with a disclaimer: "There is an outdoor ballroom in the gardens of Versailles. In what follows, that much at least is true." This inversion of the usual "based on a true story" assertion may be cute, but it also suggests an untruth that's less charming: despite its title, this formulaic romance features no chaos, not even a little.
As the film begins in 1682, Versailles is under construction and King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) has grown tired of waiting for its completion. Under pressure to complete the gardens in time for the royal family and courtiers to take up residence, famed landscape architect Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) hires Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), to take on the design and construction of the outdoor ballroom, called the Rockwork Grove.
The film underscores the risk posed by this hire. Le Notre is a traditional stylist, while Madame de Barra is more adventurous. The job calls for conspicuous opulence and she's inclined to simplicity, dressing in neutral colors and wearing her hair loose. Where the king's courtiers are strolling bored through ornate palace rooms, she is digging in the dirt with her bare hands and hacking through brush. They are bent to the will of the king, "like a well trained plant", and she is wild, "natural and unforced."
Such simplistic, schematic representation extends to the film's treatment of Madame de Barra's work: it offers glimpses of the construction at Versailles, but much more attention is paid to the inevitable romantic course she sets with Le Notre. She is widowed and grief-stricken to point of hallucinations. He is married to a conniving courtier (Helen McCrory), who flaunts her affairs with other men and her superior financial and social power. Worse, De Barra and Le Notre's connection is so thin as to make their dialogue almost nonsensical, as when she describes him as "the most complete person I know," despite to this point having almost zero insight into his personal life beyond his sense of failure at living up to the family name.
The facile love story and the pursuant melodramatic scorned-wife-revenge plot contribute to A Little Chaos' clumsy treatment of women. Touting itself as a film about a woman breaking sexual and social class barriers, it hardly seems to know what to do with her. Yes, Madame de Barra is working in a man's world, supporting herself "on her own merit". Yes, she is direct in her encounters with others, refusing the artful or restrained speech of those at court. This makes her an anomaly, certainly, maybe even a bit of a proto-feminist, except that all her barrier-breaking seems only to make her more desirable to the men around her.
The other women at court serve mostly as contrasts to throw Madame de Barra into high relief. In all their artifice, they are created beings while she is a creator. Still, the movie reminds us, all women suffer similarly. Madame de Barra is invited by Madame de Montespan (Jennifer Ehle), one of the King's mistresses, into her "secret space". Doors open onto a little sitting room full of women who crowd around Madame de Barra, examining her clothes, questioning her, touching her skin and hair and comparing her breasts with theirs. It's a bizarre moment in which, for them, she is both completely foreign and yet vaguely recognizable. When the discussion moves past her appearance, the women begin to discuss lost loved ones. The odd change of topic makes the point that the women adhere to the king's wishes that they never speak of death. Alone together, they can express themselves in their feminine space.
Of course, Madame de Barra needs to face her own loss, so she can stop hallucinating and face the future. In other words, she needs to be made whole to be a suitable partner for Le Notre. The king's women offer her instruction and a sense of community in that they have all lost children, husbands, or both. Like most else in the film, however, the group therapy circle borders on overkill, and it's distractingly unbelievable for this 17th-century setting.
Still, Madame De Barra gets enough out of that session that she feels compelled to go to bat for Madame de Montspan, who has fallen out of favor with the king. It's another moment that works against the film's ostensible pro-girl agenda. As the women and men stand opposite each other, Madame de Barra, using a rose as her metaphor, lectures the king on women. It's a cringe-worthy speech that ends with her telling him what women want: "Patience, care, and a little warmth from the sun are our best hope." All her self-reliance, directness, and creativity implode in this one remark, which is not only hopelessly clichéd, but also drops all the power over a woman's happiness, survival, and success right back into the hands of men.
Madame de Barra, it turns out, is not so wild and unforced after all. She may start from a different point than the other women and the men around her, but she ends up in the same place, stifled by order with no chaos in sight.