Director's Note: The Lady in the Portrait

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The Lady in the Portrait is a sumptuous tale of art and power, set in the 18th century imperial court in China, showing at GFT this September. Delve into this Director's Note by the film's director Charles de Meaux, kindly supplied by CinéFile, to learn more about the process behind creating this exquisitely crafted period piece. 

Click here to book your tickets.


The Lady in the Portrait is a mysterious painting…

This kind of Chinese Mona Lisa, painted by a French Jesuit, can be seen in the museum of Dole, a small town in the East of France. After I saw this painting, the face of this woman remained engraved in my memory for a long time. I was intrigued by the work of the Jesuit priest and the way this face is rendered in the Western tradition, even though the rest of the painting is devoid of perspective and shadows… East and West merged to perfection. The relationship and meeting between two “civilizations” have always fascinated me.

Then I discovered the story of Empress Ulanara, the woman in the painting… She had an incredibly romantic destiny. She was passionately in love with Emperor Qianlong who neglected her. She went through unspeakable emotional torment, before committing the irreparable: cutting her own hair, a grave insult to the Emperor – for only on the day of the Emperor’s death would one be allowed to cut their hair.

What an extraordinary encounter: this young Jesuit, an exceptionally gifted painter trained in Rome, who died in China twenty years before the French revolution, and this lovesick and desperate empress, a romantic icon before the term was coined! The pose sessions unfolded under this yoke both imperial and religious.

The Lady in the Portrait is obviously fiction; I wrote it with Michel Fessler. I ended up imagining this love story, drawing from the intensity of the portrait, the intensity of this woman’s gaze. I told myself that the making of this portrait had brought about feelings of love. This lovelorn woman is desperate for the emperor’s attention, and all of a sudden she meets the gaze of this painter… This is a film about a romantic encounter, with the painting as both catalyst and outlet. I hope it is simple and classical. 


Melvil Poupaud

I see in Melvil the vibrancy of the young western painter, mixed with the religiosity of the Jesuit. A mystic, but sensitive and
rational… I feel he carries within himself both the possibility of this love, and its prohibition. A lightness of touch, but not devoid of gravitas. And though many Jesuits would grow a beard, I chose for him not to have one, so as to reinforce his singularity.


Fan Bingbing

Bingbing is an exceptional actress, and a great star. I had already worked with her, on Stretch, and I was confident she would let me direct her. She helped a lot in smoothing things over with the Chinese producers.She’s the most famous actress in China at the moment, so she was a valued ally. Of course, having Bingbing as a lead actress makes me want to do nothing but cinema. Shooting this film was like being working in Hollywood in 1950, there’s no room for error!

Costumes and props

The costumes are surprising, especially for Chinese audiences… And yet they are all based on existing wardrobes. Films traditionally use costumes in a 19th century style, whatever the era in which the plot unfolds. Here, I worked with Sandra Berrebi, the costume designer, to reach the perspective of those who wore these robes; how they perceived the patterns, the fabrics, the cuts. Perspective is what I was interested in.

I adopted the same approach to period furniture and props, eschewing those traditionally rented for shooting in film studios. I think there is a precision to what is displayed on the screen that complements every nuance in the acting. Perhaps it is an illusion, but at least it helped me feel the set come alive! But we were also worried, as any prop on the set was worth at
least 300,000 Euros!


Filming locations

Everything inside the empress’ apartments has been recreated based on the real one, down to every detail, in the Beijing film studios. For exteriors, we restored part of the Forbidden City built for Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. I have visited the Forbidden City and Chinese museums more than anyone else! I even ended up meeting the curator of the City! He helped a lot and validated the sets and costumes.

We also shot in Yuan Min Yuan and in the Summer Palace in Chengde, up north. The war scenes in the beginning were filmed on the historical sites of Taklamakan, where sand dunes leave way to black rocks, vast moonlike expanses that are scorching hot in the summer and freezing cold in the winter. The light there is unique in the world, or at least I think so.

The Forbidden City is a huge empty square in the middle of Beijing’s hustle and bustle. Few people get in: mostly servants and mandarins who come to work there. Noise is thus scarce, and the acoustics are peculiar: paper windows, wood and carpets. This ambience had to be evoked. We used a system with eight microphones built for direct recording in 5.1, for ambiences.

Language has a musicality to it, and every one has to speak with a reasonable volume, so as not to disturb the Powerful. To create this impression of proximity of voices, I chose a microphone and a specific tube system, to give each actor a different vocal timbre. I had worked and rehearsed so much with the actors, that I would watch for every nuance in their performance, and attempt to capture them as precisely as possible.

Along with the sound recordist, Bruno Ehlinger, I wanted the sound to carry much of the storytelling. To obtain subtle effects where the voice of the characters recede or approach according to their movements, where tingling earrings become as important and telling as dialogues, we developed an encoding system allowing the film’s sound to be perceived three-dimensionally. I love to work on sound, and I’m always creating and researching in that field. I have my own studio and equipment.

- Charles de Meaux, Director
With thanks to CinéFile

The Lady in The Portrait is screening at GFT from Monday 14 - Thursday 17 September. Click here to book your tickets. 

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