Rated R. Running time: 1 hours 57 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 5.
Our star rating (1-5): 4
And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the (wo)man whom he had formed.
This beautiful costume drama, actor Alan Rickman’s second film as director, might be considered a “what if” film, in that it is a fanciful tale about a female garden architect taking on the assignment of designing and supervising the building of an important part of the lavish gardens of the new Versailles residence that King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) is building just outside of Paris. Patriarchy was very much the order of the day, but Mr. Rickman has great fun imagining what it might have been like had a strong-willed woman been among those who created the magnificent grounds and gardens that have drawn millions to admire them.
It is 1682, and the King’s head landscape architect André Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) is interviewing landscape artists by the dozen. The grounds of the King’s new palace are so vast that he must seek help in their design and execution. From his office window he notices the approaching Madame Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet), singular among the applicants in that she is a woman. She stops at a small plaza decorated by numerous potted plants that he had arranged in a perfectly symetrical circular arrangement. He is surprised to see her bend down and move one a few inches, thus upsetting the symetry. He has her set of plans on top of dozens of others, but barely glances at them during the interview with her. At this time he does not mention her act below, but, apparently bothered by it, he ends the interview with no position offered to her.
However, when he finds that the other plans are ordinary, his trusted assistant Moulin (Danny Webb) places Sabine’s on top of the pile, and André has to admit their designer is indeed creative. He visits her at her home that night, indirectly informing her that she has the position. She is to build what will become known as the Rockwork Grove or Salle de Bal, a terraced outdoor amphitheatre with a special water cascade.
André’s haughty wife Françoise (Helen McCrory) has forged an agreement with him that each of them can bed down with others, an arrangement very much in vogue at the French court. Sabine, on the other hand is a widow whose husband and little daughter died several years earlier in a carriage accident. As we will understand later, guilt is mixed with grief in Sabine’s heart and mind. Of course, she and André are drawn to each other, but it takes longer than in a Jane Austin novel to consummate their love. Long before this Françoise senses this and conspires to sabotage Sabine’s project. She succeeds merely in slowing it down, her deed actually thrusting Andre and Sabine closer together.
There are a number of moving scenes in the film, such as Sabine’s stopping by a master gardener’s in the country one day to purchase some plants. Unknown to her the King, whom she has not yet met, has decided to leave Paris and spend time alone there so he can meditate without the constant distractions of the court. With his lavish coat and wig laid aside, he looks like the gardener to Sabine. They have a lovely, quiet chat. When about half way through it she realizes she is speaking with the king, she continues on without any fawning or embarrassment. Later, when she is presented formally to him he is obviously pleased with her.
A second enjoyable moment takes place in a sewing chamber at the court just before Sabine is presented to King Louis. The inner circle of noble ladies all welcome her to join them. None evince a trace of snobbishness as they converse with this lowborn lady whose talent has brought her far and thus aroused their curiosity. When they learn of the loss of her daughter and husband, they are touched, especially by the death of the child. Virtually to a woman, each of them speaks longingly about a child prematurely taken away by death. For some, more than one little one. They might be of a different class from Sabine, but the sorrows of motherhood bind them together.
The refashioning of the wild land surrounding the new Versailles palace is a fascinating story. Though some critics have complained of “the lack of chemistry” between the two stars playing the lovers, I found their story very engaging. Some of this alleged “lack” is partly due to the restrained manners of the 17th century as well as the status of André as a nobleman and Sabine as a commoner. One did not cross such a barrier lightly in those days. There is also much going on in the film—I haven’t even mentioned the delightful Stanley Tucci playing the King’s homosexual brother Philip, a role he obviously relished. He too takes an interest in Sabine, though not as an object of romance, but simply as a woman whose skill and cleverness have brought her all the way to his brother’s court, and thus one worthy of his interest and support. Even one of the unsuccessful applicants for Sabine’s position comes around to be one of her fervant supporters, greatly helping her to organize and manage the sometimes unruly day laborers, at first not keen on working for a woman.
Cinemaphotographer Ellen Kuras’s beautifully captures the green, rural landscape, the color of the flowers, and the splendor of the costumes and court settings. The film, relegated to the art house circuit, might not compete at the box office with the summer blockbusters, but we should hear about it for costume design and photography this fall come Oscar time.
This review in the July 2015 issue of Visual Parables includes a set of 7 discussion questions.