The Lady in the Portrait

Reviewed by Carol Rennie

The Lady in this French-Chinese co-production, directed by Charles de Meux, is the second wife of the Qianlong emperor. There is no question of her 'affronting her destiny' in the manner of Henry James' eponymous character – her destiny is a given – all she wants is to gain the attention of her husband, who of course has so many other calls on his time and attention. But the empress is not positioned as a passive object of the male gaze: as much as she is studied by the Jesuit court artist who has been commanded to paint her portrait, she is observing him – curious about his theories of art, his faith and views on love.

The film is very still, with some artful and unusual touches in which live scenes are substituted with sketches. The primary focus is less the characters or the story, and more the exquisite and voluptuous depictions of the Chinese court: the beautiful film shots, the art being forged under the artists hand, and glimpses of all that goes on around the edges of action. Nonetheless, a good proportion of the audience seem to have agreed with the Guardian's review: "artful, yet inert... a decorous, ever so slightly sleepy ... sit." The ennui that must have afflicted so many trapped in the rich trappings of imperial life was perhaps communicated to the audience too well! Some will have found, in these times of self-isolation and reduced social contact, that they have become more attuned to stillness, more attentive and less critical of a very 'still' movie – but for others, our threshold for the sort of patient attention this film requires is ever more attenuated – more action please!