"Portraits Chinois"

Helena Bonham Carter dazzles in a lilting French relationship comedy.

By Charles Taylor

Published November 5, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

For years Helena Bonham Carter seemed to be acting with a storm cloud above her head. No matter the role, she brought it a scowling sullenness that was puzzling, as if she resented having to act. She finally found an outlet for that bottled-up anger in "The Wings of the
giving a multilayered performance that required her to play several conflicting emotions in almost every scene.

There are probably other actresses who could have carried off that role, but I can't think of one who could have matched Bonham Carter's desperate furtiveness. She turned her Edwardian dresses and masses of dark curls into an animal's shell from under which her eyes peered out as if stalking prey. You looked at that woman and were certain that, were you to shake her hand, you'd find yourself holding the trembling, grasping paw of a small woodland creature, one who both needed protection and fiercely resisted it.

As Ada, an English fashion designer living in Paris in Martine Dugowson's ensemble comedy "Portraits Chinois," Bonham Carter doesn't come near that intensity. But, then, the role doesn't require it, and she has never been as purely likable as this. Her eyes are at the center of her performance here, just as they were in "The Wings of the Dove." But in "Portraits Chinois," they're the eyes of a clown. Walking around a summer house in big clunky shoes and short pants, Bonham Carter suggests what Chaplin
would have looked like if he'd gotten himself up in drag as one of Mack Sennett's bathing beauties.

Even in the moments when Ada is drowning in
heartache over her relationship with Paul (Jean-Philippe Ecoffey), her screenwriter boyfriend, Bonham Carter never loses touch with an
essentially comic spirit. She acts with the sort of exuberant relief that often comes over talented actors when they are allowed to be funny. She's so recognizably neurotic in a thoroughly contemporary way that watching her
you feel a pang of alarm at what's being lost in her costume drama appearances. Her performance in "Portraits Chinois" suggests that the movies have been missing out on a glamorously frazzled high-style comedian.

"Portraits Chinois," which was made in 1996 and is only just being released here, is yet another suggestion of what moviegoers in this country are missing with the current wretched state of foreign film distribution. It would be overestimating "Portraits Chinois" to call it a masterpiece. It's a much lighter film than Dugowson's remarkable debut "Mina Tannenbaum" (which starred two actresses who appear in this film, Romane Bohringer and Elsa Zylberstein). And if you were to put it next to another recent French film that tackles the same subjects, Olivier Assayas' "Late August, Early September," it might seem thoroughly insubstantial. It is a trifle, but it's an adult trifle.

Had "Portraits Chinois" been made 20 years ago,
it's exactly the sort of movie that would have been an art-house hit. This exploration of relationships and careers and the neuroses that keep us chasing after -- and screwing up -- chances at happiness has some of the
qualities of recognition that used to send people to Woody Allen comedies, before he became an art-conscious, moralistic drag. That it takes place in the worlds of fashion design and moviemaking, among characters with just enough money to allow them to concentrate on their neuroses (knowing
where their next meal is coming from, they can obsess freely) links it to an earlier era of movies in which comedy was set among the well-to-do and stylish.

The basic joke of the movie, the basic condition of life in it, is that everybody wants something -- or someone -- else. Ada is jealous because the young designer Lise (Bohringer) has been given the job Ada coveted with the famous designer Rene (Jean-Claude Brialy). Lise wants Paul. Agnes (Sophie Minon), married to the director Yves (Yvan Attal), wants Yves' producer, Alphonse (Miki Manojlovic). Alphonse is such a womanizer that what he wants changes with the wind. It's one of Dugowson's best jokes when he finds himself wanting Emma (Zylberstein), a friend of Ada and Agnes' who doesn't know what she wants.

Bonham Carter is far from the whole show here. Within the framework of this loose rondelet, Dugowson allows her cast to score one grace note after another. No one has ever quite parodied female insecurity the way Zylberstein has. Her Emma wears such a long face that it seems to have extended to the drooping sleeves of her sweater. Zylberstein does something very difficult: She plays a self-pitier in a way that's never mopey, and is incisive without being cruel. The combination of self-absorption and self-righteousness and the utter lack of confidence is riotously accurate. You may think of every sad-sack friend you've ever spent
an evening bolstering.

Romane Bohringer plays in an opposite vein. Bohringer has the open face of someone who's about to be bruised by life. What's touching about her is inseparable from what seems so callow. Minon plays Agnes with a
sort of dazed carnality. And as Alphonse, Manojlovic, with his mop of hair and what might be called the mug of a buoyant sad sack, is beautifully flustered. Manojlovic, who's superb in the French-Canadian film "Emporte-moi" (which will be released here early next year), can't quite understand how he's gotten himself ensnared by someone like Emma, and Manojlovic's helpless impatience with her is one of the more original
comic portrayals of male romantic helplessness in recent movies. That Alphonse and Emma turn out to be such a well-balanced match is indicative
of Dugowson's intuitive comic grace.

"Portraits Chinois" truly is an ensemble comedy, and a smarter, more delightful one than it would seem were it reduced to a laughter-and-tears description. Technically, it's part of the genre that I refer to with a line from Inspector Clouseau: "Eet's all a part of life's rich pageant." But Dugowson doesn't push the
melancholy or the laughs. If this is a shallower film than "Mina Tannenbaum," it's also a sign of growth. Directing an ensemble comedy and keeping it as light and nimble as this one requires enormous control. What uses Dugowson puts that control to next seems one of the more exciting prospects that movies have to offer now.

Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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