In Martine Dugowson’s debut film, Mina Tannenbaum, there’s a superbly apt description of the tumultuous relationship between two longtime female friends. “With time,” one of them realizes, “she preferred the memory of her friend to her presence.” That bittersweet sentiment is again explored in Dugowson’s Portraits Chinois. The setting is Paris, where a group of smart, stylish friends–all involved in film production, fashion design, or both–fall in and out of love with each other. Ada (Helena Bonham Carter), an English designer, lives with her screenwriter boyfriend, Paul (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey). At their housewarming party, various insecurities emerge: A seemingly meek coworker named Lise (Romane Bohringer) covets both Ada’s job and her man, and Paul’s writing partner, the hopelessly gauche Guido (Sergio Castellito), is distracted by his pathetic love life. If the situation sounds like a dozen other American independent films about postcollegiate clusterfucking in the big city, it’s not. Portraits Chinois lets its intertwined stories emerge with considerable warmth. As in Mina Tannenbaum, people always seem to be sounding out arguments in their heads–and the director allows the audience to hear their secret thoughts, whispered in voice-over. The performances are uniformly strong, and Bonham Carter has no trouble fitting into this particularly Parisian ensemble. Speaking French, she seems freer to explore the vulnerability beneath her sometimes brittle screen persona. In Portraits Chinois, she, like the story, has room to breathe.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on November 9, 1999