‘A Little Chaos’
Alan Rickman
Stars: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts
Rating: R
2 (out of 5) Globes

“A Little Chaos” opens with Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) delivering a flowery, self-important speech. But he’s not delivering it to a stacked court; it’s a rehearsal, delivered in full mock-pomp to his children, who join him in striking vogue-ish poses. It’s an unusual, amusing way to start a costume drama, and its nudging satire — reducing the fineries of a bygone aristocracy to child’s play — is the type of pedestal-knocking the director Richard Lester would bring to his period pieces, like his pratfall-heavy, puckishly disrespectful “The Three Musketeers” movies. But in “A Little Chaos,” this start is misleading; for the most part, what follows is business as usual. At least the title doesn’t lie; there really only will be a little chaos meagerly injected into a classically stuffy genre.

Actually, it is a lie: technically, there’s next to no chaos, despite the film’s storyline concerning the breathing of fresh and funky life into a tired and programmatic way of thinking. “The Sun King” wants a new garden at Versailles, and he’s tasked fearsome landscaper Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) to task someone else with designing it. Le Notre goes against type and chooses one Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), a bold up-and-comer who not only lacks a Y chromosome but wants to get away from the rigidly geometric designs of the past. 

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Despite the look of it, “A Little Chaos” is only lightly feminist, and not only because Sabine is a total fiction. Once the idea that Sabine could order people around, creating her own striking art, everyone generally seems cool with the idea. Only Le Notre’s wife (Helen McCrory) is opposed to her, but only because sparks fly between she and her husband — or so we’re told, otherwise we likely wouldn’t know. Both characters and actors are so remote that whatever it is they’re doing to each other barely qualifies as a period piece eye romance. Winslet is a peerlessly giving and open actress, but her Sabine — who has a mighty skeleton in the closet coyly withheld from viewers for far too long — rarely gets to break from a sad-eyed pout. Schoenaerts’ Le Notre simply wears a permanent half-smirk and whispers most of his lines. The actor is a fascinatingly internal presence, but here he seems merely bored. 

And thus all we’re left with is getting the same few concepts drummed into our heads time and again: that it’s a film about upsetting order; that it’s a tale of a woman doing right by herself that’s meant to comment on how little, gender-wise, has changed; that Stanley Tucci, as the flamboyant Duke of Orleans, should wear flowing period wigs far more often. “A Little Chaos” rarely cuts loose, and honestly only comes to life when it gets a rare call from Rickman’s Louis, who of course barely moves at all. Rickman also directed the film — it’s his second such effort, after 1997’s “The Winter Guest” — but his work is stiff and paint-by-numbers. So, in a sense, is his performance, but there are few delights like Rickman doing Rickman. All he has to do is stand there, looking mildly befuddled and say just about anything, as just about anything that pours from the actor’s mouth like molasses from a jar is bound to sound euphonious, sometimes even hilarious. The best part of the entire film may very well be when he says the words “Have you lemon?” — a simple pleasure that breathes brief life into an otherwise dour grind. 

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge