Alan Rickman died too soon. My first memory of him was his appearance as the criminal leader in Die Hard, but I think he really captured my heart as the manic Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves; he was pretty much the only good thing in that film. And of course, he found a legion of new fans in what is probably now his most famous role, Severus Snape in the Harry Potter films. A Little Chaos (2014) was both his last film role released while he was alive and his second and final film as a director. It’s a modest little film, but not without its charms.
The film tells the story of the construction of the Bosquet de la Salle-de-Bal at the Palace of Versailles, during the reign of Louis XIV. Louis’s landscaper was André Le Notre, one of the greatest landscapers of the 18th century. One of the more unusual things he installed at Versailles was a small outdoor ballroom set in a grotto decorated by seashells and fountains.
The film’s central conceit is that Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) had enough work to do that he fielded out the construction of the grotto to a female landscaper named Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), who struggles to win the respect of Louis (Rickman) and deal with the jealousy of Madame Le Notre (Helen McCrory), while coming to terms with the death of her husband and daughter in a coach accident a few years earlier. Louis is himself grieving the death of his first wife, Maria Theresa, and when Sabine accidentally mistakes him for a gardener, the two strike up a cautious friendship based in their mutual sense of grief.
The Bosquet de la Salle-de-Bal
The film has a nice set of linked metaphors in the relationship between gardening, politics, and the realities of life. 18th century landscaping sought to impose a strict sense of order onto nature, the same way that Louis wishes to impose his will on France and the way that Sabine needs to impose constraints to her grief. And yet, as Sabine acknowledges, life always means a little chaos, so she tries to introduce the unexpected into her landscapes (in this case, the unusual grotto), while the unexpected forces of both death and romance disrupt the lives of most of the main characters. In the most touching scene, Sabine finds herself a fish out of water in Louis’ court, and yet suddenly discovers a great deal in common with the other ladies of the court, most of whom have their own dead husbands or children to grieve. It’s a nice reminder of just how high the mortality rate of the pre-modern world was.
Rickman and Winslet as Louis and Sabine
Rather refreshingly, the film acknowledges right at the start that the whole story is fictional. It’s prologue text reads simply “There is an outdoor ballroom in the gardens of Versailles. In what follows, that much at least is true.” Sabine is a completely fictitious character. The idea that 17th century society would have had room for a female landscaper who essentially ran her own business is a pretty fantasy, but nothing more.
The film has a good deal in common with 2000’s Vatel. Both the brilliant cook Vatel and the innovative landscape Le Notre were historical figures in service to the powerful men of the Ancien Regime, and both films dwell on the complex entertainments and artificiality of court life. Both include Louis XIV, his homosexual brother (a sadly wasted Stanley Tucci), and the Marquis de Lauzun as characters, and both address the problems of being Louis XIV’s mistress (Anne de Montausier in Vatel and Madame de Montespan in this film). So if you’re interested in the court of the Sun King, these two films make an interesting pair.
That said, A Little Chaos is not a great film. There are quite a number of characters who go nowhere. The performances are better than the script deserves, and the film’s feminist ambitions are undermined by a plot that makes men the solution to Sabine’s problems. Winslet and Schoenaets lack the chemistry to make their romance interesting. If you like historical gardening the film gets some bonus points, but it doesn’t live up to its promise to explore the philosophy of landscape design. And the soundtrack frequently becomes intrusive. But it’s worth a watch, particularly if you’re a fan of Rickman or Winslet. The final scene, in which Louis stands serenely in the center of the outdoor ballroom as his court dances around him seems a fitting way to bring down the curtain on Rickman’s career, even if that curtain came down too soon.
Vatel (2000, dir. Roland Joffé) tells the story of Louis XIV’s three day visit to the Chateau de Chantilly, the palace of Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Condé in 1671, during the lead-up to the Franco-Dutch War. It centers on Condé’s Master of Festivities and steward, François Vatel.
Vatel was one of the most celebrated chefs of his generation. He started as a pastry chef and came to work for Nicolas Fouquet, Louis XIV’s first finance minister. In 1661, when Louis came to visit Fouquet, Vatel orchestrated such a sumptuous festival that Louis used it as an excuse to arrest Fouquet for embezzlement (since he had already intended to ruin Fouquet). After that, Vatel came to serve Condé, one of the greatest generals of his day and a patron to a number of important French authors, including both Racine and Moliere.
Vatel is often, though falsely, credited with inventing whipped cream, which is sometimes called Chantilly Cream, especially in France. He may not have invented it, but he might have played a role in popularizing it.
The Chantilly Festival
In 1671, Louis announced his intentions to pay Condé a visit at his chateau at Chantilly. Such visits were a tool that Louis used to keep his powerful nobles in line, because they were an honor that could not be refused, but they carried with them the staggering burden of having to house, feed and entertain the entire royal court, which included around 600 nobles and several thousand royal ministers and servants. Forcing a noble to drain his financial reserves to host the king left them with less money with which to cause trouble for him, and made them dependent on him for financial favors.
The chateau de Chantilly
Louis gave Condé and Vatel barely two weeks to make all the arrangements, and the unfortunate Vatel reportedly got little sleep in that period. He was a man of extremely high standards and became increasingly upset over small hitches in the execution of his grand festival.
Our best source for what happened at this festival is the letters of Madame de Sévigné, whose letters to her daughter and daughter-in-law are one of the most important records of life at the French court. Although she was not at the Chantilly festival, she apparently learned the details from another member of the court. The best way to describe the incident is to quote extensively from one of her letters.
“The King arrived Thursday evening; there was everything that one could wish: hunting, lanterns, moonlight, a walk, the meal in a spot carpeted with daffodils. People ate; there were a few tables where there was no roast, because there were several more people eating than had been expected. Vatel obsessed over this, saying several times “I have lost honour; here is an affront that I can’t bear”. He said to Gourville, “My head is spinning; I haven’t slept for 12 nights. Help me to keep things going”. Gourville helped how he could, but Vatel couldn’t stop thinking about the missing roast at the twenty-fifth and twenty-sixth tables (though not at the King’s table). The Prince went to Vatel’s room and said to him, “Vatel, everything is fine: nothing was as beautiful as that dinner for the King”. Vatel said to him, “My Lord, you are too kind. I know that there was no roast at two tables”. “Not at all,” said the Prince. “Don’t fret about it, everything is fine”.
“Night fell, but the fireworks, which had cost 16,000 francs, were a flop because it turned foggy. At 4 a.m., Vatel was everywhere (fretting) while everyone else was asleep. He met a small supplier doing a morning delivery, who had only two loads of fish. Vatel said to him, “Is this all?” The supplier replied, “Yes”. He didn’t know that when Vatel said “all”, he had been referring to the requests he had made from all the ports. Vatel waited a while, but no other deliveries came. He got in a frenzy, thinking he would have no other fish. He found Gourville and said, “I won’t survive this insult; my honour and reputation are at stake”. Gourville made light of it.
“Vatel went up to his room, put his sword against the door, and caused it to go through his heart; he had to do this three times, because the first two hadn’t wounded him deeply enough to kill him.
“At this point, fish deliveries began arriving from all over. People were looking for Vatel for instructions; they went to his room, forced the door, and found him in pool of his own blood. Some ran to tell the Prince, who was plunged into despair. The Duke cried, because he had come to Burgundy because of Vatel.
“The Prince told the King, with great sadness, that people were saying it was because of Vatel’s pride; people were both praising and blaming his courage. The King said he had put off coming to Chantilly for five years because he understood how much stress his visits caused. He said that from now on, the Prince should only worry about feeding two tables of people, and not worry about the rest. He said he wouldn’t allow the Prince to go to such great effort anymore, but that it was too late for poor Vatel.
“Gourville undertook to make up for the loss of Vatel, and did it. Everyone ate well, walked, played, hunted, the perfume of daffodils was everywhere, everything was enchanting. Yesterday, which was Saturday, everyone did the same again, and in the evening, the King went to Liancourt, where he ordered a late supper.”
It seems clear that Vatel’s suicide was driven by a combination of high standards, the stress of being responsible for the entire royal court, lack of sleep, and what he saw as a disastrous stroke of bad luck. We might also suspect he was a high-strung man.
Roland Joffé (working from a script by Jeanne Labrune and Tom Stoppard) turns the Chantilly festival into an exploration of the French court under Louis XIV. In the film, which explicitly declares itself to be a ‘true story’, Condé (Julian Glover) is informed by the Marquis de Lauzun (Tim Roth) that Louis wishes to visit and enjoy the simple pleasures of the country, which, Lauzun explains, means that Condé should spare no expense whatsoever to entertain the king. Condé then tells Vatel (Gerard Depardieu) that he has good news and bad news. The bad news is that the king is coming to visit Chantilly and the good news is that France might go to war with Holland. Condé is bankrupt and needs the king to pay his debts, and war means that the king will need Condé’s services as a general. So, if the festival goes well and war does happen, Condé will probably be able to get the king to pay his debts. (The idea that Condé was bankrupt is improbable; he was an extremely rich man.)
Depardieu and Glover as Vatel and Condé
And so the film unfolds as the French court descends on Chantilly and Vatel works to orchestrate this enormous festival. The film is chiefly interested in two things: the enormous effort it takes to feed the court and stage the entertainments, and the complex intrigues of the French court. In this second plotline, the chief figures are Lauzun; the king’s brother (known as Monsieur); and Anne de Montausier (Uma Thurman), a minor member of the court who is the king’s most recent lover. Lauzun wants to sleep with Montausier, who is not interested in him, but she grows increasingly interested with Vatel because he is not interested in the complex games played by the court, while Monsieur is sexually attracted to Vatel’s adolescent protégé and grows offended when Vatel refuses to give him to Monsieur.
Someone who is clearly much more knowledgeable than I am about Louis’ court wrote a very lengthy discussion of the courtly characters of the film, which you can read here. So rather than commenting of the accuracy of the characters, I’ll focus on other things.
Perhaps the most valuable thing about the film is the way that it focuses so much attention on what goes on behind the scenes at a 17th century palace. Vatel’s scenes concentrate very heavily on his efforts to direct the enormous army of cooks and servants who are critical to the success of the festival. We watch Vatel overseeing the cooks, telling them how to prepare various dishes. When problems arise, he improvises a variety of solutions. (when he realizes that he does not have enough meat to serve everyone at the first dinner, he orders a cook to produce a dish with mushrooms. When someone asks what meat is in the dish, he replies “unicorn”.) Lauzun asks Vatel to produce a spun sugar masterpiece to impress Montausier. Because he is so busy, Vatel refuses, until Condé orders him to do it, and so we get to watch him produce a bowl of fake sugar fruit.
Vatel working with spun sugar
The film also addresses the various problems of supply that Vatel faces. Early on, the tradesmen of Chantilly refuse to provide him with any further supplies until Condé pays their bills. Vatel explains that unless the festival is a success, Condé will not be able to pay, so they have to extend him further credit to have any hope of getting their money. While this may not be historically accurate in Condé’s case, it is an excellent example of a real problem that nobles and the businessmen they patronized experienced. In another scene, an entire shipment of glass candle-globes arrive broken because the roads were too rough, and Vatel has to improvise a replacement for them.
Equally interesting are the entertainments themselves. The film shows us two elaborate theatrical spectacles offered for the king’s amusement. Here’s the first one:
The second one involves an elaborate fireworks show that accompanies the arrival of an enormous whale, which opens its mouth to reveal a singer who is lifted above the banquet by a complex system of pulleys. I don’t know enough about 17th century engineering to know whether these two shows were actually possible with the technology of the time (if I had to guess, I’d say the film is probably exaggerating somewhat), but they are certainly suggestive of the kinds of entertainment that 17th century kings liked to see, and of the theatricality of Louis’ court, which was key to his success as a monarch.
The fireworks at the second banquet
The other half of the film dwells on the life of the court, and here I think the film is somewhat less true to its source material. The members of the court as shown as being extremely decadent. Louis has brought both his formal mistress, Madame de Montespan and his actual mistress, Montausier, and Lauzun wants to sleep with the latter, even if it means blackmailing her. When he sends her Vatel’s impressive fake fruit masterpiece, she doesn’t even look at it before rejecting it, so Lauzun randomly selects another woman of the court to receive the gift; the message here is that Lauzun and Montausier are too jaded to appreciate it for the work of art that it is. In another scene, Monsieur takes revenge on Vatel by casually breaking the whale prop.
The court gambles constantly. Early on, Condé makes the mistake of playing too well and has to start losing intentionally, just to please the king. (“Has Condé lost his chateau?” “Not if he plays his cards wrong.”) Later, Louis and Monsieur casually bet expensive jewelry in another game. Condé tries to demur, saying he has nothing so valuable to wager, but Louis orders him to wager Vatel. Vatel, who is devoted to Condé and has trusted him enough to make major sacrifices, is upset to learn of the betrayal.
The whole point of these scenes is to contrast the jaded nobles, who have no regard for anyone beneath them, with Vatel, the commoner who is far more moral and decent than the people he is keeping entertained. The only member of the court who has any morals is Montausier, who increasingly feels a connection to Vatel as the only decent man around her.
Lauzun hitting on Montausier
When Vatel finally commits suicide, no one seems to actually care. The king is told that Vatel did it because the fish hadn’t arrived, but that’s not the real reason. But Madame de Sévigné’s letter makes clear that many people were in fact distressed by Vatel’s suicide, and the king seems to have acknowledged his role in the man’s death. So the suggestion that the court was too decadent to value human life is unfair.
Depardieu’s Vatel seems a very different man from the real one. Whereas the real Vatel was stressed out, deeply concerned with his honor and reputation, and probably suffering from sleep deprivation, the cinematic Vatel is not concerned with honor and reputation so much as being a decent man. When the king summons him to compliment him, Vatel refuses because he is too busy. He wants the festival to go right, not because it’s a matter of honor, but because he’s committed to doing what he’s said he will do and because he wants Condé to do well. He’s not high-strung; he’s quite solid and serious, more so than the people around him. His suicide has little to do with the fish; that problem is simply the last straw, and he seems to have decided to kill himself already.
So the film’s treatment of the court of Louis XIV is somewhat negative and acts mainly to establish the protagonist’s virtue. But the film is worth a look for its depiction of a facet of court life that is too rarely shown, the hidden underside of the cooks, the purveyors, the servants, and the other little people. Unlike recent productions like Downton Abbey, the film isn’t interested in most of them as people, but more in the work they are doing to feed and entertain the court. This nameless army are as much the heroes of the film as Vatel.