East meets West, and the two gingerly fall in love through art in Charles de Meaux’s “The Lady in the Portrait,” a period yarn evoking the unique rapport between a French missionary and the Manchurian Empress whose portrait he’s ordered to paint. Exquisitely-costumed and voluptuously shot, the film evokes life in the Qing Dynasty court with studied elegance and rare intimacy that make it more than just another Bertolucci or Zhang Yimou wannabe. Added last minute to the Cannes official selection as a tribute to Chinese diva Fan Bingbing, who’s serving on the jury, the film will definitely pique art-house interest in Europe, but isn’t likely to make a dent in China’s commercially driven market.
If anything, the story itself serves as an allegory of Chinese-Western co-productions, in which both sides are simultaneously turned on and put off by each other’s values and working methods. However, the narrative is too languorous and low-key to fully convey its motif of cultural collision or to analyze the aesthetic impulses behind Orientalism with any depth.
The Emperor Qianlong (who lived from 1711-1799) reigned over what many historians considered the Golden Age of the Qing Dynasty, the Manchurian conquest of China. He enlisted European missionaries to introduce Western knowledge and art into his court, with Italian Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione wielding the most influence. The story takes place circa 1755, when French missionary-painter Jean Denis Attiret (Melvil Poupaud) catches the eye of the emperor (Huang Jue) for his drawing of exotic European flora and fauna.
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Fan, at perhaps her most imperious and brittle, plays the beautiful Ulanara, second empress to Qianlong. Not only is she jealous about the emperor’s favors to other consorts, but she is deeply insecure about his undying love for his late wife. When she sees (or imagines) his longing at the sight of the portrait of the late Empress Xiaoxian drawn by Castiglione, she entreats Qianlong to commission one of herself as well. She hopes the painting will arouse the same desire in him — a commentary on the power of the image and the cultural differences between the East and the West regarding art’s purpose, whether to interpret or reproduce reality.
While there are quite a few films that dwell on the attraction between famous painters and their muses (among them “Girl with a Pearl Earing,” “Caravaggio” and so on), what makes De Meaux’s version interesting, if not exactly original, is that Ulanara is not positioned as a passive object of the male gaze, nor put on a pedestal. As much as Attiret studies her, for technical purposes, Ulanara is the one who expresses curiosity about his occidental theories of art, his faith and views on love, including his vow of chastity. The way the two look at one another is dramatized to probe whether art and beauty have universal standards, as implied in a scene when the Chief Eunuch Chen (King Shih-chieh) asks Attiret if the imperial consorts and their ladies-in-waiting look attractive to Western eyes. There’s also a meta-connection to filmmaking, when Ulanara, tired of posing all day, orders a maid to be her stand-in.
On a dramatic level, the film mostly spans the few months of portrait painting, before jumping to a poignant finale that takes place two years later. The process by which the Empress and painter warm to each other is slow-moving since their emotions don’t seem to intensify in the process, while their physical overtures to one another are somewhat awkwardly staged, perhaps too obliquely nuanced to generate tension.
De Meaux, who previously co-produced three Apichatpong Weerasethakul features, reveals his experimental leanings via occasional flights into abstract visuals, animation and interior monologues. Some of these flourishes add a contemporary sensibility, as in a Daliesque opening sequence depicting the battlefield where Attiret was sent to paint. Less effective are scenes in which Ulanara converses with her inner voice, also played by Fan and superimposed onscreen as a semi-transparent cutout.
Fan, whose performances often have an arch, opaque quality, comes across as unusually human here as she gives an unassuming but quite moving portrayal of a proud woman gravely hurt by her husband’s neglect. Poupaud (“Laurence Anyways”) is severely hamstrung by having to speak (or dub over) Mandarin dialogue. Veteran Taiwanese actor King is creepily inscrutable as a eunuch, as is Huang, who conveys the monarch’s absolute power by making neither his wrath nor his pleasure discernible, when he sees her portrait by Attiret.
Across the board, the below-the-line contributions show a tastefulness often missing in the lavish but gaudy court epics seen in Chinese film and TV. Production design by Francois-Renaud Labarthe and costumes by Sandra Berrebi sport radiant color textures. Acting as his own cinematographer, de Meaux aptly conveys an outsider’s vision of Chinese art and culture, meticulously framing every shot like a painting. His beautiful approach recalls Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon,” while the delicate lighting doesn’t overdo chiaroscuro effects.