Portraits Chinois

on September 12, 1996 by Shlomo Schwartzberg
   A group of artistically inclined French friends fall in love and out of love in traditional romantic manner, but "Portraits Chinois" ("Shadow Play") makes everything old feel new again. Set in Paris (of course), "Portraits Chinois" is as intricately developed and lovingly crafted as the photos to which its title refers. It begins with a couple, English fashion designer Ada (Helena Bonham Carter) and screenwriter Paul (Jean Philippe Ecoffey) moving into a new home. They've been together for a while, but they're not really happy or communicating their dissatisfaction to each other. Guido (Sergio Castellito), Paul's writing partner, is having severe relationship problems but can only mope around Ada and Paul's kitchen. Enter Lise ("Savage Nights'" Romane Bohringer), an up-and-coming fashion designer who ends up in the middle of Ada and Paul's marriage.
   Though "Portraits Chinois" could sound like a glib Woody Allen film, it cuts much deeper. Director/co-writer Martine Dugowson ("Mina Tannenbaum") follows these four and their friends as they laugh, bicker and lie to each other--in short, as they live their lives of not-so-quiet desperation. She even allows the audience to hear her characters' thoughts, an effective device in that it allows the filmmaker to contradict the words that are coming from their mouths.
   Her whole cast is excellent, but standouts are Bonham Carter (who, impressively, speaks fluent French for her role) as the somewhat cold Ada and Castellito as the hilariously hapless Guido. Jean-Claude Brialy as Sandre, Ada's domineering fashion mentor, is also fine. With a sublime soundtrack (including the ubiquitous Leonard Cohen tune), "Portraits Chinois" contrasts romantic musical stereotypes with the less-than-flattering reality of people's ordinary love lives. But the movie allows for a smart happy ending that nicely twists the fiction/reality conundrum of the cinema. Happiest of all should be those movie buffs who venture out to see this unheralded gem.    Starring Helena Bonham Carter, Romane Bohringer and Jean-Claude Brialy. Directed by Martine Dugowson. Written by Martine Dugowson and Peter Chase. Produced by Georges Benayoun. A Phaedra release. Drama. French-language; English subtitles. Not yet rated. Running time: 138 min.
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