This French-Chinese co-production about an earlier French-Chinese collaboration offers handsome pageantry amid its lavish recreation of 18th-century imperial court life, but it isn’t quite enough to compensate for a puttering narrative motor. Longtime Apichatpong Weerasethakul producer Charles de Meaux has turned director with a far eastern equivalent of Girl With a Pearl Earring – another decorous, ever so slightly sleepy matinee sit.
The film’s subject is Jean-Denis Attiret (played by Melvil Poupaud), a real-life French Jesuit missionary who spent half of his 60-odd years employed as the Chinese court painter. His trickiest commission, recalled here, came from the emperor’s bored wife (Fan Bingbing), thirsting to preserve an image that might turn her indifferent husband’s head.
Most of the action, such as it is, takes place in Attiret’s makeshift studio, where the central relationship progresses as the painter shifts from tentative charcoal sketches to making marks with ink and acrylic, while various hangers-on debate the differences between Chinese and European art. De Meaux also permits himself the odd expressionistic flourish. A prologue superimposes one of Attiret’s canvasses on an empty battlefield, doubtless saving the director money on armour-clad extras, while his model drifts away to have conversations with the spectres of previous empresses – a very Weerasethakul-like touch, intended to draw out the inner life of a quiet, demure figure.
Elsewhere, De Meaux holds dear to the virtues of classical painting. Serving as his own cinematographer, he dabs thoughtful widescreen compositions with appealing pastel hues, aware that – in the drama’s quieter moments – he can always fall back on the ever-absorbing sight of an artist’s hands at work. There are a lot of those moments, though, part of a curious void at the heart of the film, as if the characters were the last elements sketched in, and then in haste. I wondered whether De Meaux’s art-history nous might be better turned to production design or even curation: as it is, the vases adorning the sets demonstrate more character and depth than his pretty yet passive leads. Undeniably artful – but a lot of that beauty is on the inert side.
•The Lady in the Portrait is in cinemas on 17 May.