Charles de MeauxCharles de Meaux the lady in the portraitthe lady in the portrait frenchfrench chinesechinese fan bingbingfan bingbing 18th century18th century courtcourt religionreligion artart rivetterivette cinefilecinefile melville poupardmelville poupard

The Lady in The Portrait


‘…benefits from capturing unfamiliar tropes of Chinese cinema…’

So this isn’t Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, not is it a Portrait of a Lady on Fire, although the leads generate strike sparks in Charles de Meaux’s visually striking historical drama. There is a portrait at the centre of the story here, not seen until around the hour mark, and such is the intensity of this Chinese/French co-production from 2017, in UK cinemas from Sept 4th 2020,  hat it’s a big reveal when we finally see it…

‘What would you have me be?’ is a key line here, spoken late in the film. The setting is 18th century China; Attiret, a Jesuit priest, is charged by the Emperor with the job of painting his empress Ulanara (Fan BingBing). The missionary, played by Melville Poupaud, knows that the emperor’s patronage is potentially fickle, but accepts the assignment. The Chinese sages around him want to discuss his Western religious beliefs, as does the empress, but he deflects their attentions. As the experience of sitting for the priest’s portrait changes the empress, the stakes are raised when the emperor gets to hear of their closeness…

What does the emperor want from the priest? And what does Ulanara want, other than to please her master? Here are two characters who have set roles to play in a court stuffed with intrigue, but can’t help but fail to match up to the expectations of others. And yet the empress is beautiful, and the priest is gifted, and the portrait is good. But somewhere along the way, they transgress, and the mechanism is set in motion that will separate the kindred spirits…

This is a remarkable film, with psychedelic moments, some animation, and a sense of stillness and intrigue that make for a compelling watch. The court resists the idea of being Westernised by the presence of the priest, and The Lady in the Portrait benefits from capturing unfamiliar tropes of Chinese cinema, notably Ulanara’s conversation with her ghostly inner-voice. There’s also a stunning moment when BingBing appears with eyes drawn on her eyelids that has an iconic power. The images are lush and glamorous; at times, we could be looking at frames from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, except these characters don’t run up the scenery like Sonic the Hedgehog. Instead, we have Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse without the nudity; a portrait of an artist and his muse, and of the artist’s process, all well-drawn.

Shelved for three years, during which time Fan Bingbing’s career has taken a few well-publicised turns, this is a nice pick-up for Scottish distributor Cinefile, who correctly imagined that this kind of tasteful, restrained, thoughtful drama should be a big-screen draw for cultured, art-house audiences everywhere.

NEW: THE LADY IN THE PORTRAIT (Release 4 September 2020)



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  1. “we could be looking at frames from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, except these characters don’t run up the scenery like Sonic the Hedgehog” haha, that sentence totally cracked me up😂😂
    Well, you know me and Asian culture! I love it, so this is definitely a film that I very much want to see. Surprised though that this movie has been shelved for three years🤔🤔 Anyways, this is certainly a movie that I most assuredly will see at some point! Great post!😀😀

    • I’m keen to give the impression that I’m immersed in them; this film deals with conflict between Chinese and Western cultures, but respects both, and you can feel the difference. The animated inserts, ghostly figures and other elements don’t feel like sops to Western audiences.

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