“A Little Chaos” is visually beautiful, and has every reason to be. It takes place in and around 17th-century Versailles, a world teeming with colorful images from both the natural world — exquisite roses, vast forests — and the man-made one, epitomized by Louis XIV’s ostentatious get-ups and his palace’s gilded interiors.
But for all its stunning imagery, the story never clicks. Though it purports to be about the delights of disorder, “A Little Chaos” feels like yet another by-the-book period romance, only without the genre’s requisite spark between the main characters.
Kate Winslet plays the fictional Sabine De Barra, a widowed landscape architect who is hired by the king’s renowned principal gardener, André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts), to create an outdoor ballroom, complete with a fancy waterwork. Her only directives are to try not to go over budget and to make it “perfect.”
Either would be hard enough. But then Sabine and André get off on the wrong foot after he spies her rearranging some of his potted plants, breaking up concentric circles into something a little more dynamic. He becomes testy after that, taking exception to her second-guessing, but eventually comes around, in the manner of Mr. Darby of “Pride and Prejudice.” So begins their inevitable march toward a passionate embrace. Though André is married, the audience is encouraged to overlook that fact, given that his wife is an adulterous Cruella De Vil-type who berates him for sport.
The other major narrative thread concerns Sabine’s wide-eyed wonder when she arrives at court, thrust into a gossipy world where affairs are rampant. As Duke of Orleans, Stanley Tucci struts around like a preening peacock, underscoring how out of place Sabine is. In case we hadn’t noticed the incongruity, the movie strives to remind us, continually contrasting her natural beauty — makeup-free face, loose curls — with all the meticulously painted ladies at court.
It’s obvious why André would fall for her, but Schoenaerts fails to convince us that there’s an attraction. The Belgian actor, who came across as similarly reserved in the British period romance “Far From the Madding Crowd,” is even more staid here. “A Little Chaos” builds desperately toward a climax that doesn’t feel remotely authentic.
Alan Rickman, who plays Louis XIV, also directs, in what is only his second stint behind the camera, and his first since 1997’s “The Winter Guest.” It’s a shame such a talented artist couldn’t create a more memorable film, but the overlong “A Little Chaos” bogs down in a lackluster love story. On screen, all the perfectly pruned shrubs in Versailles aren’t enough to make a impression.
R. At AMC Loews Shirlington 7. Contains nudity and sex.