We recently went to see 'A Little Chaos' at the cinema. It was a wonderful surprise to see a film featuring garden designers. So rarely do films focus on the unsung heroes of design (tongue firmly in cheek).

Alan Rickman gives us a sumptuous glimpse into the life of the trials (and inevitably romances) of Sabine du Barra (Kate Winslet) and André Le Nôtre (Matthias Schoenaerts) building the gardens at Louis XIV's (Alan Rickman) Versailles. If you've never had a chance to visit you really should - over three hundred years old and still breathtaking.

André Le Nôtre was the French landscape architect who was Louis XIV’s principal designer of the grounds at the Palace of Versailles while Du Barra, a fictional character, has been picked to create an outdoor auditorium-style venue for dancing and balls. Rickman has created a well crafted film that will captivate audiences. The scenery and costumes, as well as the shots of the gardens and flowers are a treat for the eyes. What I really enjoyed were the aspects of garden design that the film highlights, especially as they (mostly) still hold true today, and those are what I will focus on.

The film poses a fundamental question in design. At du Barra's interview, Le Nôtre asks, "Do you believe in order over landscape?" This is a question that has changed the face of modern design as increasingly looser, freer design that mimics nature's true essence has come to the fore. 

In one scene, while walking to the palace for an interview Du Barra moves one of Le Nôtres potted plants in a display so it is out of  alignment - highlighting the benefits of a certain degree of chaos within an ordered environment. It reminds me of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, the acceptance of transience and imperfection.

While pattern and order do have their place, the inclusion of asymmetry often serves to highlight the beauty of a design. For example, fine Persian carpets will often include intentional imperfections. This view is derived from the religious belief that God is the only perfect being. Within a design, there is always place for elements that do not follow rules. I like to include special features within gardens to highlight their individuality.

The film also highlights how the use of innovation and new thoughts within any garden will add to its design. Le Nôtre employs du Barra, even though her ideas are new and not yet established. The most successful gardens, in my opinionbalance historical precedence and current innovation, as well as reflecting the surroundings in which they exist. The introduction of new technology, building materials and modern techniques can greatly improve a design; modern art and culture must be used to inform design.

Du Barra's own courtyard garden is a lush, bohemian space filled with plants and flowers lit by lanterns and candlelight. Lighting is a vital to a complete design and can serve to highlight different components of the whole. To be functional, a garden must be able to be used at night and lighting achieves that. Recently, candlelight, as opposed to electrical lights has become the choice of lighting in gardens. It has undoubtable romance to it, which is particularly good for small spaces or more  private areas within a garden. Du Barra uses a diverse range of lanterns and candles to illuminate her garden, again highlighting the beauty that can be achieved from chaos.

A garden designer is often tested with obstacles and challenges. The course rarely runs smoothly. Early on in her commission, du Barra is faced with a predicament when her team of gardeners leave, showing themselves to be incompetent and not entirely behind the project. Personally, as a designer and a project manager, I feel that the skills and reliability of your partners in landscaping are of utmost importance. Managing people and situations is an often overlooked skill in landscape design but key to success. While no stranger to getting her hands dirty, du Barra is helped when she employs a new foreman and landscape team. Her garden is also vandalised at another point in the film. She is advised by Le Nôtre to adapt - a important skill when dealing with unforeseen challenges. A garden designer has to be able to deal with changes to plan. My own background in the City, working with various teams and departments, has been an education in dealing with change and contingencies as well as competing demands of stakeholders. 

Le Nôtre was faced with an incredibly difficult brief. The site at Versailles was not promising - it was very boggy, a fact alluded to in the film. The Duc de Saint Simon wrote in his diaries thatVersailles was "the saddest and most barren of places, with no view, no wood, no water and no earth, for it is all shifting sand and marsh, and the air consequently is bad." Moreover, Louis XIV's fascination with fountains rendered Le Nôtres job even harder. First of all, huge amounts of earth had to be shifted to excavate these water features and to create terraces. A lot of this work was actually done by the military.  Secondly, despite there being over 2,400 fountains, there was always a lack of water to fill them at the same time. This eventually resulted in the creation of the enormous Machine de Marky, which diverted water from the Seine and even an unsuccessful attempt to divert water from the River Eure. The difficulties in securing water for all the fountains are touched upon in the film. As a designer today it is important to know how to overcome a variety of problems, and know where to turn for expert advice when needed.

All in all, the film is beautiful and well made. I would recommend this for lovers of gardens and romances alike. The chemistry between Winslet and Schoenaerts is palpable, and I think it is a real triumph for Rickman. Thumbs up from me - green thumb of course! 

Reviewed April 2015


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