Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Don't-miss Blu-ray/DVDebut: Alan Rickman's elegant, humane look at Louis XIV & friends

A LITTLE CHAOS, the second film to be directed by actor Alan Rickman (he also co-wrote it, along with  Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan) is something of a surprise. While we expect a certain level of elegance and class (often of the dark sort) from Mr. Rickman -- the actor/director/writer is shown below -- what we get here is all that and more. In this perfectly imaginary look at the environment of King Louis XIV of France (the beginning screen roll clues us in that only one of the many things we're about to see is based on fact), we're made privy to the kind of "court life" we've seldom seen on the screen.

There's a kind of humanity, together with a naturalness and innate hesitancy, that makes many of the best scenes of this film (which has a lot of them) ring with a rare combination of spontaneity, believability and charm. As fine a writer and director as Rickman proves, he's still best as an actor. Here, playing the plum role of Louis XIV (below, center), he is at his best, making of this amazing monarch something more passionate, intelligent, inquiring and special that we've yet seen. In fact, Rickman's performance, script and direction call more to mind the brilliant Rossellini film,The Rise of Louis XIV than anything on French court life to come out of Hollywood (including Sofia Coppola's silly and superficial Marie Antoinette).

In one sense, King Louis is but a subsidiary character to the two romantic leads essayed (and well) by Kate Winslet and Matthias Schoenaerts (below and on poster, top), playing Sabine and and André, landscape gardeners of the day -- in a time when women were expected to do little more than bear children or (if at court) gossip and wear glamorous attire.

These two characters are hardly conventional romantic hero and heroine. Their initial attraction is less about lust than intellectual stimulation, mutual interest and simple companionship. But as you watch A Little Chaos, be aware of how Rickman's Louis controls the film. It is he who begins it and, in fact, keeps it on track throughout. The movie is more a lovely nod to that rare thing, the (relatively) benign dictator, than any standard romantic nonsense.

It is also about gardening, and what a little of nature's own chaos can add to human design; about the need for some passion in one's life, as well as beauty and security; about identity and a "woman's place" in a time of utter male domination.

Mid-movie there is a simply stunning scene -- quiet, rich and beautifully acted by Rickman and Winslet -- in which deliberately mistaken identity leads to a coming together of class and interests, and which gives us further understanding of the character of Louis and why he was able to rule so long and so (relatively) well.

The movie is worth your time for this scene alone, as well as for another, at the climax, in which a woman is compared to a rose -- in which the writing is simply splendid and the visuals, of the men arrayed on one side, the women on another, speak volumes with nary a word being said. The finale, too, is something to view, as the camera pulls back and back and back, until even the kingdom of the "Sun King" is seen to be something small, after all.

Rickman, his co-writers, crew and cast give all these themes a workout that proves both elegant and humane, simultaneously literate and lovely to look at. (Versailles and French court life simply demand Blu-ray, and the transfer here is generally stunning.)

When this film hit theaters (few and for a mere few days) about six weeks back, reviews ranged from mildly approving to condescendingly smarmy. Most critics, rather than engaging with what was placed in front of them, opted to want something else and so targeted the film for not being that something else. Talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Keep your eye out for good work from the likes of Stanley Tucci (above), Helen McCrory, Jennifer Ehle (shown six photos up) and Paula Paul. And if the above review sounds at all promising, give A Little Chaos a shot. It hits the street today, August 4 -- from Focus Features and running 117 minutes -- on Blu-ray and DVD.

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