Movies about gardeners are rare blooms*, so ‘A Little Chaos’ is a bit of a thrill. Alan Rickman’s film about the building of a garden at Versailles has Kate Winslett as a fictional landscape gardener with a soft spot for chaos. An order-obsessed Andre le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) grudgingly employs her and you can guess what happens next. Much as I loved watching Kate Winslett in corset and lovely leather boots, tromping through the mud, ripping out rampaging vines and sawing through overgrown trees, I like the real story of the making of the gardens at Versailles better.
How’s this for a plot. Before le Notre took on Versailles, he was commissioned to work with architect, Louis le Vau, and painter Charles le Brun on the French finance minister Nicholas Fouquet’s new Chateaux de Vaux-le-Vicomte. No expense was spared on the gardens, and its 1661 launch party was the height of extravagance in an era noted for going over the top: the fountains played, papier mache whales floated on the lake, Moliere premiered a new play, and the young King Louis IV was the guest of honour.
The big show was crazy-brave. Fouquet had been diddling the books, and though he was hardly the only aristocrat with his hand in the pocket of the French state accounts, he had powerful enemies. Three days after dangling his wealth in front of the king, he was arrested on charges of fraud. He never saw Vaux again and died 19 years later. (And here’s a weird sub-plot: the real-life Man in the Iron Mask acted as his prison valet!).
Le Notre and his colleagues fared better. The King ordered the trio to start at Versailles – and warned them that it had better be better than Vaux! Le Notre used many of the pioneering landscaping techniques he had developed for Fouquet. He had a marvellous eye for matching architecture and formal planting with the topography of the site: both Vaux and Versailles express order carved out of the forest. He was also a natural mathematician who devised clever surprises and tricks of perspective in his gardens. The scale of his vision is boggling, even more so when you think that the Versailles gardens in his time were twice as big as they are now. Winslett’s Madame de Barra is a fiction, but the garden she creates in the film is real. The Grotto of Thetis was built as an outdoor ballroom with marble flooring, tiered seating, and fountains that run over tiers of stonework and shells. The grotto is also part of Le Notre’s ingenious hydraulics scheme. Disguised on the top of the grotto is a reservoir that gravity-feeds the fountains in the lower gardens.
Of course it’s only fair to judge a film, or a garden, on what it is, not what it isn’t, so go and see ‘A Little Chaos’ for the fun of the romance, Kate in the mud, Alan Rickman and Stanley Tucci having a drolly good time, and glimpses of garden. But, given a chance, make sure you also see Le Notre’s masterpieces, Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte.
* favourite garden-related movies anyone?