The feminist who made Versailles

The Church undergoes its annual renewal during the lenten period and much the same is happening in moviegoing.

Kate Winslet plays a garden designer at the court of Louis XIV in Versailles.

Kate Winslet plays a garden designer at the court of Louis XIV in Versailles.

The feast of Hollywood award winners is over and the peak winter season of international festival films has yet to begin.
So, too, are the northern summer blockbusters, mainly inspired by comic book space heroes, although audience appetite for these is waning.
Instead, more modest and overlooked offerings are dusted off . They come with little fanfare and without any pretence to award-winning status.
European period pieces from past centuries have recently produced such gems as A Royal Affair from Denmark, and Farewell, My Queen and The Princess of Montpensier, both from France.
The British, of course, excel at history (an example is last year’s Belle), and not just their own country’s.
Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos (Transmission) is set at the end of the 17th century during the French ancien regime under Louis XIV.
Rickman himself plays the Sun King and has selected a strong and mainly English-speaking cast to avoid the usual problem of credibility when telling a foreign story.
The Book Thief, for example, was set in Germany during World War II. But told in English, it lacked authenticity.
Louis XIV’s court of Versailles provides no such problem, as the costumes do their job and the
script, by Rickman with Jeremy Brock and Alison Deegan, uses a formal style of English that appears perfect amid the lavish palaces and gardens.
The plot centres on a triangular relationship: the king, his landscape architect and garden
designer André Le Nôtre (Matthia Schoenaerts) and Sabine De Barra (Kate Winslet), who does most of the heavy work in the construction department to fulfil their visions.
This makes the film a delight to watch, as we learn much about the origins of Versailles, which symbolises not only an absolute monarchy but also the scale of grand ambition.
Versailles occupies about 800 hectares in a mix of formalised gardens, woodlands and special
attractions. One of the latter, a bosquet (grove) named the Salle de Bal, was designed as an amphitheatre and features a cascade.
It is apparently the only one still surviving today and is Madame de Barra’s main project as
she steers her way through court intrigue and the amorous intentions of her two patrons.
As well as being an independent widow, Winslet is physically imposing and uses her stature
to good effect against the court’s motley coterie of men and women.
Her past — including the tragic death of her husband and her child — continues to haunt her, without detracting from her distinctive brand of feminism as an outsider among supplicant courtiers.
But this is no bodice ripper and don’t expect any torrid scenes that have become a feature of historical series on TV.
The most surprising is when Madame de Barra mistakes the king for a horticulturalist as they
enjoy a chat about gardening in an outdoor nursery. Nor is there a shortage of dramatic stuff as Le Nôtre’s wife (Helen McCrory) attempts to sabotage the garden project.
Rating: Mature audiences (sex scenes); 117 minutes.

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Nevil Gibson

Reader Interactions


  1. Francis says

    Why are movies with pornographic scenes reviewed on NZ Catholic’s website? Does the reviewer not know that to watch pornographic scenes is mortally sinful? The review should have been “The warning label said it contains sex scenes, therefore is gravely offensive to Our Lord Jesus Christ. So do not watch this nor let anyone in your family watch it”. Or something along those lines.

    • Wen says

      There´s not any “pornographic scenes”in this movie.
      There’s one romantic intimate scene, minute and half, and has nothing forbbiden in it.

  2. Wen says

    Pity, she was a fiction character, there´s any Madame de Barra in Versailles history.
    She doesn’t exist, and that’s sad.

  3. Anthony STODART says

    Please don’t trot out the word pornographic as a routine and hackneyed misrepresentation of the sexual act and matters sexual – whether ‘licit’ or not so.

    Sex, per se, is not pornographic, in whatever natural and unperverse form it may take.

    It is human, at its best beautiful, and, even when less so, never evil. I, as a once seriously and rigidly raised Catholic, recognise and condemn the harm and misery inflicted on generations ansd millions, over centuries, by this demonisation of one of the most, possibly THE most, compelling and irresistble forces of our human nature – the one which, for better and so often, worse, admittedly, has governed our life – it can be a force for evil, preying on human frailty and imperfection, but equally for immense delight, happiness and fulfilment.

    It is NEVER, per se, evil and thus not pornographic!

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