The only chaos connected with this stultifyingly orderly and conventional period film must be the chaos now reigning in the offices of Matthias Schoenaerts’s agent. Perhaps even at this moment, the beefy Belgian star has angrily turned up there, pounding on the door, asking why he has been pushed into ridiculous, wussy, period-thespy English-speaking roles. And the agent is hiding under his desk, with the lights off, pretending to have gone home. Schoenaerts once rocked our world with pure sweaty sexiness in movies such as Bullhead (2011) and Rust and Bone (2012). Like Tom Jones in his pomp, it seemed as if, with the pure aura of virility, Schoenaerts could trigger a clutch of spontaneous pregnancies simply by entering the room. Now, having just played a preposterously sensitive German officer in sucrose Suite Française, and unveiled his exotic Wessex accent and body language in the new version of Far from the Madding Crowd, here he is in A Little Chaos, set at the court of Louis XIV in Versailles, playing a garden designer with long hair and a habit of singing in a high voice.
Sometimes counterintuitive casting works interestingly. Not here. It is as if Marlon Brando, fresh off A Streetcar Named Desire, had been told by his agent that he had to play Fotherington-Thomas in a new screen adaptation of the Molesworth books: the sensitive, golden-haired boy who skips around saying: “Hullo clouds, hullo sky.”
Schoenaerts is playing the real-life historical figure of André Le Nôtre, the French landscape architect who was Louis XIV’s principal gardener and designer of the grounds at the Palace of Versailles. Matthias has neatly trimmed stubble and lustrous long hair, glowing as if he has been at the Pantene that very morning. In one excruciating scene, he has to sing in a reedy alto, holding his hands like bunches of bananas. Kate Winslet plays Sabine de Barra, a fictional character who is also a landscape designer, with a traumatised backstory revealed in an interminable flashback. She is finally hired, after an initial meet-cute-style audition-fail, as André’s feisty creative subordinate in charge of designing one particular bit of the garden, an outdoor auditorium-style venue for all manner of masques and costumed prancing.
The big deal, and the central point of the film, is that André is overly concerned with patterns and order, but Sabine has a feel for that vital ingredient of life-affirming creative chaos that could put some sparkle into Versailles and indeed into André’s heart. On her way into the palace for her interview, Sabine pauses to move one of André’s potted plants in a display so it is out of alignment – and this irritating fiddling is supposed to show what a free spirit she is. It is in fact the only time Sabine shows any interest in anything chaotic: her eventual design, though arguably unusual, is as rigidly schematic and ideologically subordinate to the Sun King as everything else.
Alan Rickman plays the king with a touch of drollery and vulnerability: his opening scene comes close to being sweet, and he almost pulls off the curious trick of upstaging his own movie. He could himself be, in fact, that little touch of chaos. The same goes for Stanley Tucci, playing Louis’s roguish brother, Philippe Duc D’Orleans. But they are utterly stifled in this dreadfully solemn world of wigs and frocks and furbelows, with Helen McCrory wasted in the role of Madame Le Nôtre, André’s duplicitous and flinty-hearted wife, from whom pudding-faced Matthias seems so detached that when he sees her on the stairs, in a moment of supposed intrigue, his glance is bland and detached – like recognising your postman while shopping in the supermarket.
Finally, of course, there is romance between Sabine and André, who has a moment of Mr Darcy-style romantic immersion, but really this is as damp as everything else. Schoenaerts may be headed for a period of career crisis, like the one that afflicted the French actor Jean Dujardin after he starred in The Artist in 2011. Or it could be that Matthias Schoenaerts is Belgium’s answer to Matthew McConaughey, an actor who started well, went through a protracted dip into terrible romcoms and stormed back with his Oscar-winning McConaissance. Matthias is in dire need of a Schoenaissance.
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