You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘The Lady in the Portrait’

An empress commissions a painting of herself from a Fresh outsider in hopes of stirring her husband's interest in this lavish period piece.

Charles de Meaux
Fan Bingbing, Melvil Poupaud, King Shih-chieh, Huang Jue, Wu Yue, Sally Chan.  (Mandarin, French dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4961016/

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.

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.

Cannes Film Review: 'The Lady in the Portrait'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (special screening), May. 17, 2017. Running time: 104 MIN. (Original title: "Hua Kuang Nv Ren")

Production: (France-China) A Hengda Film Co. (in China), Rezo Films (in France) release of an Evergrande Pictures, SFDC, Anna Sanders Films production in association with Back Up Films. (International sales: All Rights Entertainment, Hong Kong, Paris.) Producers: Charles de Meaux, Timothy Mou, Huang Tao. Co-producers: Lattes, Lim Chin Siew.

Crew: Director: Charles de Meaux. Screenplay: Michel Fessler, de Meaux. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): de Meaux. Editor: Catherine Libert

With: Fan Bingbing, Melvil Poupaud, King Shih-chieh, Huang Jue, Wu Yue, Sally Chan.  (Mandarin, French dialogue)

More Film

  • Alex Ross Perry

    Alex Ross Perry to Write and Direct Stephen King's 'Rest Stop' for Legendary

    Alex Ross Perry will write and direct Legendary’s film adaptation of Stephen King’s short story “Rest Stop.” King’s short story, first published in Esquire magazine in 2003, won the national magazine award for fiction in 2004, and was later included in King’s 2008 collection, “Just After Sunset.” The movie is described as a propulsive cat-and-mouse [...]

  • Hobbs & Shaw trailer

    'Hobbs & Shaw' New Trailer Touts More High-Intensity Fights

    A new “Hobbs & Shaw” trailer packs in the international action with fast cars and high-intensity fight scenes.  When the first trailer dropped in February, viewers were introduced to the genetically-enhanced villain Brixton, played by Idris Elba, as well as a newly cordial relationship between old enemies Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and Deckard Shaw (Jason [...]

  • ralph Fiennes WHITE CROW Directing BTS

    Ralph Fiennes Examines Rudolf Nureyev's Complicated Life in 'The White Crow'

    The story of “The White Crow,” Ralph Fiennes’ latest directorial effort, is as topical as anything currently sitting on the desk of a studio head. It tells of a rebellious artist grappling with his sexuality during turbulent political times rife with tensions between the United States and an agitated Russia.  But though the upcoming film, [...]

  • MoviePass card

    MoviePass Has Lost Over 90% of Its Subscribers in Less Than a Year (Report)

    MoviePass users apparently hit the exits en masse after it scaled back the number of movies users could see each month: The flailing cinema-subscription provider has seen its subscriber rolls plunge from a peak of more than 3 million to just 225,000 in under a year, according to a new report. The numbers were reported [...]

  • Sundance Film 'Midnight Family' Sells Domestic

    Sundance Award Winner 'Midnight Family' Sells Domestic Rights to 1091 (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Midnight Family,” an award winning documentary about the struggles of a family in Mexico City, has sold its North American distribution rights to 1091. The indie studio was previously known as the Orchard, but received a new moniker after it was sold by Sony Music Entertainment to a new investment group in January. 1091 plans [...]

  • Villains - Maika Monroe Bill Skarsgard

    SXSW Comedy Thriller 'Villains' Acquired by Gunpowder & Sky, MoviePass for U.S. Release

    Dark comedy thriller “Villains,” which premiered last month at the SXSW Film Festival, has been acquired for U.S. release by Gunpowder & Sky in association with MoviePass’ film division. G&S and MoviePass Films plans to give “Villains” a theatrical release this summer, after buying the rights from The Realm, Bron Studios genre arm. The film [...]

  • General Delegate of the Cannes Film

    Cannes Reinstates Advance Press Screenings, but Favors TV, Radio Journalists (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following last year’s backlash by film critics over changes to its screenings schedule, the Cannes Film Festival has decided to reinstate morning press screenings for movies having their gala world premieres in the evening. But there’s a catch: Only a few hundred journalists — mainly from TV and radio outlets — will be admitted, and [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content