Portraits Chinois (review)

Sex and the City

Generation X. We’re just not all that successful when it comes to relationships, are we? Or at least that’s GenX’s image in popular culture. But no, I think it’s probably a pretty accurate image. We marry later, we live alone more than any generation before us, and when we are with someone, we can’t get it to work half the time.

And it ain’t just American Xers, either.
Portraits Chinois (Shadowplay) plays like a less-goofy, French version of Friends, following a group of young, single Parisians over the course of a year or so as they deal with career frustration and watch their love lives implode. An Englishwomen living in Paris, Ada (Helena Bonham Carter: Fight Club,The Wings of the Dove, in her first French-language role) is a fashion designer who’s seeing her creative endeavors pushed aside in favor the fresher work of a younger designer, Lise (Romane Bohringer). And it’s not only Ada’s job Lise is after — Lise has a bit of a crush on Ada’s boyfriend, Paul (Jean-Philippe Écoffey), and isn’t afraid to show it. But maybe that’s okay: Ada and Paul have gotten so comfortable together that they’re beginning, perhaps, to take each other for granted. In fact, they’ve barely moved in together when Ada, at the housewarming party for their new apartment, wonders if she made a mistake in buying the place with Paul.

And then there’s Guido (Sergio Castellitto), Paul’s screenwriting partner, who’s obsessed with the sexually demanding Stéphanie (Emmanuelle Escourrou) — Paul tries to set him up with Lise, to get her off his back. There’s Emma (Elsa Zylberstein), who struggles with her lack of self-esteem — she thinks nobody loves her — while developing a truly awful stage show, and Alphonse (Miki Manojlovic), the womanizing film producer who’s anxiously awaiting the script Paul and Guido can’t seem to finish.

Ada and Paul’s is the centerpiece relationship of Portraits Chinois, though, and her uncertainty about their future together comes to a head eventually at a moment of crisis — a crisis to which Paul responds in a manner Ada was not expecting. At this point, the film starts to wander a bit aimlessly — what was a frothy and fairly light comedy of manners now loses direction as Ada explores the funk the collapse of her relationship with Paul has left her in. The film finds its way again at the end, however, in time to see Paul transform their meltdown into artistic success with a script that replicates, with a happier ending, their romantic wrong turns.

Director Martine Dugowson — who wrote Portraits Chinois with Peter Chase — likes the idea of creative success and frustration coinciding with romantic success and frustration, and we watch the fortunes of this group of friends rise and fall with their libidos. Despite the subtitles, Portraits Chinois tells a story that’s instantly recognizable to anyone living and working and loving, or trying to, in a big city.

With its universally appealing story and healthy dash of sexual byplay, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Portraits Chinois remade in Hollywood. But like much of Hollywood’s output, I found it mildly diverting and ultimately forgettable.

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