'The Lady in the Portrait' ('Le Portrait interdit'): Film Review

Evergrande Pictures Co. Ltd./Anna Sanders Films SFDC
Elegantly crafted, but like watching paint dry.

Fan Bingbing stars opposite Melvil Poupaud in French producer-director Charles de Meaux's film about a Jesuit painter working in the 18th-century imperial court in China.

The colors blend beautifully together, as do the exquisite sets and costumes, yet the East-meets-West historical drama The Lady in the Portrait (Le Portrait interdit) makes for a rather bland depiction of a French painter toiling in the imperial court of Qianlong Emperor, who ruled China throughout much of the 18th century.

Starring Melvil Poupaud as the Jesuit priest Jean-Denis Attiret and Fan Bingbing as his royal muse, the Empress Ulanara — both real-life figures whose stories are fictionalized here — this third feature from producer-director Charles de Meaux (Stretch) has all the ingredients for a juicy tale of art, power, concubines and Catholicism. But like the many sessions where Ulanara stands for hours as Attiret attempts to capture her beauty on canvas, the film turns into a tedious affair that becomes increasingly benign despite all the heavy themes it tries to tackle.

Still, de Meaux, who also served as cinematographer, provides a fair amount of aesthetic pleasures if you're simply willing to watch the action without being drawn too far into it. Released in China last year and in a handful of French theaters this December, it's hard to see how Portrait will recoup its purported $40 million budget — although the impressive array of set-pieces at least show us where all that money went.

In the court of Qianlong Emperor (Huang Jue), the women serve as either wives or concubines while the men are mostly eunuchs or soldiers. There are, however, a few foreigners permitted to roam the palace grounds, including a couple of Jesuit priests whose religious practices are tolerated and whose artistic abilities are admired by Qianlong. One of them, the talented draftsman Attiret, is asked — or rather, commanded — by the emperor to paint the portrait of the latter's young bride Ulanara, who is still trying to find her place next to a powerful husband waging war throughout China.

Thus is the setup for a series of encounters between the sensitive, obeisant Attiret and the stunning if highly insecure Ulanara, who models for the priest in the hopes of pleasing Qianlong with the result. But the painting sessions prove difficult for both of them, with Attiret distracted by his subject's nosy entourage, if not by the empress herself, and Ulanara becoming more and more uncomfortable as the priest gets closer to his model. Is he falling in love with her, tempted by such proximity to the female flesh? And is she unable to cope with the fact her husband is surrounded by subservient women, some of whom could be more attractive and worthy of the crown?

These two people have a lot riding on Attiret's portrait, which, when finally unveiled, is a truly haunting depiction of Ulanara's beauty, and one that's been done in a style reflecting both Western and Eastern influences (the painting does not have classic perspective, but the features of the empress are colorfully and realistically depicted). The emperor seems to admire it, perhaps a tad too much, and the work creates a ripple effect that will upend the lives of both artist and muse, sending the former into a war zone and the latter into a state of growing anxiety and eventually, madness.

Yet despite the high stakes, the underlying drama is, for the most part, extremely lethargic, with de Meaux unable to extract any real tension from the proceedings. It's as if somebody slipped tranquilizers into everyone's tea in the Qing Dynasty, with lots of flatly recited dialogue and a general inertia in the action, not to mention a certain abstruseness as to each character's intentions. There are also a few unwelcome directorial touches, such as superimpositions where Ulanara comes face to face with other empresses, or sequences where drawings are inserted over the frame — corny ideas that come across as desperate, as if the filmmaker is grasping at straws.

It's unfortunate because de Meaux otherwise shows a real command of his movie's craft, shooting in gorgeous widescreen compositions that often look like paintings themselves. His images are well-served by the sumptuous production design of Francois Renaud Labarthe and Jiang Quan, who rebuilt Qianlong's domain on a soundstage in Beijing, and costumes by Sandra Berrebi that deserve some kind of award. The same goes for the props and set decoration, composed of actual objects from the epoch — whether a chess set or a tea service — that are striking to behold.

With so much to gaze at, and Bingbing looking her finest and definitely fitting the part, it's a pity in the end that The Lady in the Portrait doesn't add up to much more than a meticulous piece of eye candy. De Meaux is perhaps best known outside France as the producer of Palme d'or winner Apichatpong Weerasethakul, but whereas the Thai auteur's slow-cinema creations are filled with plenty of surrealism, mysticism and deep longing, this movie is slow but ultimately inept: the brushstrokes are all finely rendered but the bigger picture lacks any staying power. 

Production companies: Anna Sanders Films, Evergrande Pictures
Cast: Fan Bingbing, Melvil Poupaud, Shi-Jye Jin, Huang Jue, Thibault de Montalembert
Director: Charles de Meaux
Screenwriters: Charles de Meaux, Michel Fessler, Mian Mian
Producers: Huang Tao, Timothy Mou, Lim Chin Siew, Charles de Meaux, Jean-Paul Lattes
Directors of photography: Charles de Meaux, Dong Jinsong
Production designers: Francois Renaud Labarthe, Jiang Quan
Costume designer: Sandra Berrebi
Editors: Catherine Libert, Charles de Meaux
Casting: Zhang Xiang
Sales: All Rights Entertainment

In Mandarin, French
103 minutes