The film starts off with a title card stating that it is Paris in 1623 and that “there was an outdoor ballroom in Versailles. That much is true.” The king of France Louis XIV(Alan Rickman) is describing to his Queen and children the heaven that Versailles will be, and detailing his announcement to them before he makes it to the court. He appears to be a kind king, devoted to the children that surround him and also a traditional one, allowing the courtiers to dress him and interrupt his family time. He instructs for there to be a garden in Versailles that is almost a window to heaven itself.
A few weeks/months later, as the garden is being prepared, Madame Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) toils in her own garden, pulling (strangely) shells from the dirt. She receives a letter from Monsieur André Le Nôtre inviting her for an interview. She converses with her maidservant and it is clear they have been praying this would happen. She dresses well and buys herself an elaborate hat on her way. When outside of the Le Notre house, she rearranges some of his potted plants so they are no longer in a perfect symmetrical order. Andre sees this out the window.
Andre is talking with his butler about how his father was a famed landscaper. If Andre does not satisfy the king with the garden of Versailles he will be tarnishing his father’s name, as well as possibly causing himself some jail time. Andre seems exhausted by the interview process, he has interviewed many gentleman and 3 are left including Sabine. Sabine is outside of Andre’s office and she meets the other candidates, all of whom seem confident in their own abilities as well as disdainful of Sabine’s talent (because she is a woman.) Sabine is called in and Andre questions why her plans seem to lack order. She claims she was inspired by his own plans in that they seem to go above order. She also wants to create something uniquely French and not copy the works of the Romans or the Renaissance. Andre does not hide his exhaustion and dismisses Sabine with barely a few remarks. She returns to her landscaping crew and puts her new hat on the rubbish pile.
Later Andre is going through all of the plans and realizes that Sabine’s is the only one with a semblance of originality. It also fits perfectly into his unfinished plan for an outdoor ballroom.
Sabine is in her house changing when she hears a cry. She goes outside but no one is there. There is a knock on her door and her maidservant tells her it is Andre. Sabine runs to change, leaving Andre alone in the garden. He examines it. There is no order and yet it is exceptionally orderly. The lack of order is what elevates it. Sabine finds Andre examining the garden. He turns to her and asks her why she rearranged his plants outside his house when she thought no one was watching. She explains that there Is not a real order in nature. He tells her that when she has the job of designing Versailles she will be open to public ridicule and will have to stand down naysayers. He leaves, leaving her elated at her good fortune.
Upon her arrival to Versailles there are already problems. The current crew has no idea how to get the water for the proposed fountain. Andre simply says if the king of France wants it, it must be done. Everyone thinks it is odd that Sabine is there (as a woman.)
Sabine is up late staring at her plans and trying to work out the water problem. Suddenly she hears a voice cry out “Mamma” and she jumps up and says “I’m coming!” then realizes she was asleep and the voice was a dream. That is when inspiration hits her. She runs to Andre’s house and shows him her new plans, recycling the water and using the water pressure to power the fountain. Andre is excited at this and his wife watches them talk from a window. Later we see Andre talk to his wife and she reminds him of their arrangement-they both have their affairs as long as he does not embarrass her. Andre is clearly hurt by the fact that his wife prefers other men. His wife is clearly worried about Sabine’s influence on him.
Sabine has a hard time controlling the workers at Versailles, as they prefer to ignore her and take off drinking. Monsieur Thierry Duras, a man she met at Andre’s house by her interview, notices her doing heavy labor by herself and procures her a new, trustworthy crew. The news of Sabine’s creativity and ingenuity cause her to be invited to court. She goes, not realizing she is at THE court, she mentions she thought it was a meeting of landscapers. Instead she is surrounded by the noblest men and women of the age. She lingers by the doorway, nervous, until a gentleman (Duc Antoine de Lauzun) escorts her outside and shows her the court. He explains to her that none of the nearly 2000 courtiers are allowed to leave without the king’s permission. Since they are all quite bored he says everyone has slept with everyone. He leaves her with Andre and Andre takes her for a walk noticing, as he leaves, his wife kissing another man (clearly just to get his attention.) Sabine and Andre walk and talk about court and how neither of them could stand to be cooped up. They both value loyalty as well. Suddenly a courtier notices them and begs to be introduced to Sabine. He is Duc Philippe d'Orleans and he is quite flamboyant (looks like a 17th century Liberace.) (Played by Stanley Tucci.) He introduces her to his wife Elizabeth Charlotte who has heard all about Sabine and takes her for a walk to discuss engineering.
After this many members of the court come out to the building site to see what is going on and Andre and Sabine are invited on the palace retreats. Sabine shows the visiting courtiers the dynamite that is being used to clear space. When the blast goes off, Sabine seems to go into a trance and thinks she hears a little girl’s voice.
Andre and Sabine are on a court retreat. They eat lunch with the Duc and his wife. Elizabeth Charlotte whispers to Sabine that she knows her husband is having an affair with his manservant but she doesn’t mind because he still gives her children. The court goes on a lively walk through nature which they find exotic. Andre and Sabine stay behind and walk together, discussing Andre’s wife who grows more suspicious and controlling. Sabine has a vision of a young girl running through a field. Andre takes her to a tree littered with glass, notes, and other decorations. He says it is a shrine. All of their court friends are there as well appreciating the disorganized beauty.
Meanwhile the outdoor ballroom/fountain is coming along well. Sabine is closing up before a storm comes in when Andre’s wife shows up. She tells Sabine that she is merely a distraction to Andre, he has had them before and he will have them again. She takes off her glove and touches Sabine’s face and says “such a pretty thing.” Meanwhile one of her servants steals Sabine’s keys. He uses it to open the dam the have constructed allowing the water to flood the site while the storm does as well. One of Sabine’s workers notices and informs the others. They rush to stop the water while Sabine attempts to close the dam. She slips and is almost swept away but Andre catches her and closes the dam. The damage has been tremendous. Sabine is sleeping on the work site when the King comes to look. He wants to fire Andre but the workers (especially Thierry Duras) that the work that Sabine and Andre are doing is original and that this is a minor setback.
Andre and Sabine are at an outdoor dinner with the Duc and members of the court. Suddenly a messenger comes upon them to inform them that the Queen has died.
We cut to Andre’s wife in a carriage having anal sex with a prostitute. She leaves the carriage and goes into their house. She asks Andre is he’s been sleeping with Sabine. He informs her of the Queen’s death. She immediately asks when the King will remarry.
The Duc is attempting to feed the King who refuses to eat. He asks to be taken to Versailles and left alone. He is in a vegetable garden with his wig and ornaments removed when Sabine comes in the back (meaning she did not see the guards in the front.) Because he is not wearing a wig, she assumes he is the man she is trading plants with. He goes along with it until he slips and mentions he will be living at Versailles. Sabine realizes her error and bows deeply. He asks that they continue the charade and together they study the plants and sample the fruit. He talks about how he misses his wife because she was a simple woman who was devoted to him. The woman he wants to marry is of no birth so he cannot marry her. Sabine suggests he marry her in secret and then it will be done and there will be nothing to say. The King thanks Sabine and invites her back to his palace to be presented to him.
Andre tells his wife he has decided to take up with Sabine. When she protests he says that when she began taking up lovers she told him it was not personal, she just needed someone to make her feel special.
The ballroom is coming together well and Andre and Sabine’s chemistry has flourished. Andre and Sabine are at her house entangled in each other’s arms when Sabine starts to cry, says she cannot continue and runs away.
Andre is at the ballroom (which is nearly done) when he sees a glove on the ground. He realizes it belongs to his wife and that she must have sabotaged the project. He gives it to her and tells her he is leaving her.
Sabine is brought to court. Before she is presented to the king she sits in the head mistresses chamber with the ladies of court. They ask her if she has any kids. She reveals she had a 6 year old girl named Marie Claire who died. They all go around and share the stories of their lost children (mostly from war and smallpox.) Sabine says she keeps her child’s things in a chest she has never opened. Then Sabine is presented to the King. She gives him a 4 seasons flower like the ones they smelled in the garden and says that every rose loses its blush but should be no less appreciated. She walks with the King.
Later Andre corners Sabine and tells her he has separated from his wife. They have sex. Afterwards Andre wakes to find Sabine is gone. He finds her in the stairwell in a trance. She has a flashback to a morning when she woke up to see her husband lightly teasing Marie Claire. Her husband (Philippe)tells her because she has been depressed and not interested in sex he has taken a mistress. He also says he is taking the child to market. Sabine runs after him after the carriage has left. She sees a wheel is shaking. The butler reveals that they are going a short distance-not to market but to take Marie Claire to live with Philippe’s mistress. Sabine runs in front of the carriage and the shaky wheel throws the carriage off the road and down a cliff where Phillipe and Marie Claire are killed.
We cut back to Andre holding Sabine and telling her it is not her fault. He loves her and will be faithful only to her.
We see the King in the ballroom. The fountains are turned on and work splendidly. Haphazardly in the fountain are Sabine’s trademark-shells placed around. The courtiers dance around the King who looks at peace as Sabine and Andre walk off into the woods together.
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