With The Lady in the Portrait, French director Charles de Meaux takes a dazzling but conservative approach to dramatise a real-life occurrence: in 18th century China, Jesuit monk Attiret (Melvil Poupaud) is a court painter under Emperor Qianlong of the Qing Dynasty. With its stiff rituals, closed-off palace grounds and social rigidities, life is a lot like it would be in Versailles, although Attiret and his fellow Jesuits repeatedly struggle with the courts’ mocking dabs at the Christian God and idea of chastity. Things start to stir when, during a memorial for the Emperor’s late wife, the new Empress Ulanara (Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing) has a bout of jealousy and decides to commission a Western-style portrait of herself to rekindle her husband’s interest (not an easy task in a palace brimming with a regular influx of pretty substitutes). Attiret gets the job – while quietly giggling onlookers and critics breathe into his neck during the first couple of sessions, they soon thin out to leave him and Ulanara in a setting of ‘inappropriate’ intimacy.
De Meaux, a regular collaborator of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s, has previously worked with both Fan and Poupaud on separate projects, but this seems like his largest to date. It’s a pretty film. The exquisite costume and opulent set design, which minutely organise golden hair combs, carpets, vases and bright fabrics with a painter’s touch, are without question a joy to behold and keep up with other period courtly life eye candy like Elizabeth, Memoirs of a Geisha or 2011’s The Borgias. Throughout the film, Empress Ulanara is a dress-up dream doll in magenta, lilac and blue satin – her compulsive self-adornment with various trinkets both typecasts and stigmatises her as a woman who doesn’t learn to see any other value in herself. Although she’s capable of remaining immobile during long ceremonies, once she has to pose for her portrait, standing still just for a couple of minutes becomes an evident challenge now she actually receives a man’s full attention.
While Ulanara’s careful cultivation is framed with symmetry and theatricality, Attiret, with his dishevelled hair and askew posture, is an evident contrast. Sadly, he remains a bit of a flat caricature of the ‘painter who falls for his model’ throughout: opaque to the point of blandness, his two main drives are that he’s a devout Christian and that he starts to struggle with the sexual tension in the Empress’ room. What Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire revolutionised about the power relationship between painter and painted, The Lady in the Portrait quietly but firmly smooths back down to its more conservative male painter/female model tradition.
Not that we get to experience this ‘desire’ – although a montage of overlayered oil nudes unsubtly spells out Attiret’s inner conflict, we never really feel the kind of gradual, unspoken tension and anticipation build up that you’d know from e.g. In the Mood for Love. A pivotal scene where Attiret finally steps forward to correct his model’s posture (and touch her body) is one of the few moments where a small gesture has tangible repercussions: for a moment, a static wide shot shows us the bodies of the painter, Ulanara and her maid standing together in utter confusion, only to immediately resume their previously distanced (and appropriate) positions.
While Ulanara’s underlying anxiety of being disposable is real and moving, the laboured storyline never digs into this dilemma with actual interest. The same goes for other themes like the cultural differences between East and West, which are ever-present but only marginally explored. De Meaux also dabbles with bits of animation, random voice-over and even an odd out-of-context piece of found footage that shows a donkey’s throat being cut– instead of actually adding to the narrative, these haphazard choices rather have a let’s-throw-everything-into-one-pot feel.
The sound design hits gold occasionally by playing with the sensual interaction between textures in moments of silence: the bristles of the sweeper’s broom in the court, Ulanara’s wooden heels or Attiret’s brush circling in a ceramic pot all expose the potential power of small gestures – alas, this is another theme that briefly pops up just to disappear again in the cinematic toolbox.
As the film’s energy wanes towards a glum three-years-later end, Attiret is disillusioned with the court and war experiences, while Ulanara’s nerves are frail after struggling to draw both her husband and young son closer to her. Whatever happened to the portrait the entire film was about? Doesn’t matter to anybody. To round up your alienated scratching-your-head state, Joy Division’s The Eternal kicks in.
The Lady in the Portrait is out since 4 September with Universal Pictures in the UK. See the film’s trailer here