The Lady In The Portrait: Review
The Lady In The Portrait: Review. By John Battiston.
Its title isn’t the only similarity The Lady in the Portrait bears to Céline Sciamma’s widely celebrated 2019 film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. Like Sciamma’s movie, The Lady in the Portrait — directed and co-written by French filmmaker Charles de Meaux and first released in 2017, though few eyes have since seen it — involves the relationship between a painter and the noblewoman whose portrait the artist is tasked with creating.
But while Portrait of a Lady on Fire is by nearly all accounts a visionary masterwork, de Meaux’s film, though undeniably exquisite on a visual level, is a wholly ineffective, protracted mess with little (if any) power to engage the heart or mind.
A placid, picturesque palace in China provides the setting to this story, in which Empress Ulanara (Bingbing Fan) — whose marriage to Emperor Qing Long (Jue Huang) one would be generous to describe as passionless — commissions a French painter to put her visage to canvas in his “magical” Western style. The meek Jean-Denis Attiret (Melvil Poupaud) accepts the task, which he first approaches with a no-nonsense demeanor, insisting the empress remain still when posing for the portrait and acting cold toward enthralled spectators who flow into and out of the studio. But Attiret’s refined manners, in contrast to the emperor’s chilly stoicism, begin to capture the heart of the empress, while her beauty begins to soften the Frenchman’s mien.
Beyond unsubtle dialogue and the (admittedly dedicated) performances it so insufficiently fuels, little effort is otherwise expended to establish a connection between the two romantic leads. (I hesitate to even label them as such, so paltry is this film’s emotional weight.) And from the outset, The Lady in the Portrait presents itself in such a way that suggests de Meaux and his cowriters, Michel Fessler and Mian Mian, know just how threadbare a story they have on their hands.
Scenes both dialogic and action-oriented are bloated by sluggish editing, with most establishing shots and many inserts lasting twice or thrice as long as they ought to run. Sure, many of those shots are impeccably lit, coloured and framed, boasting sumptuous, anamorphic cinematography, but no level of optic beauty can justify tone deaf pacing and cutting.
It’s an unmitigated marvel that The Lady in the Portrait manages to last ninety-seven minutes, for this story contains barely enough substance to reasonably fill a short film one-third that length. Despite its striking visuals, I challenge any moviegoer to have their most basic need for entertainment or artistic fulfilment satiated by this film. Even the easiest-to-please child would likely start tugging on their mother’s arm fifteen minutes in, begging to escape to the dullest possible museum within walking distance, for even that would more reliably rejuvenate the senses.
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