Helena Bonham Carter is the most notable member, to English-speaking audiences, of an ensemble cast in Portraits Chinois, a French film that follows the lives of a set of Parisian friends as they struggle to deal with social, sexual, and professional hang-ups. "Struggle" is an apt word to use in the context of this movie, actually, because for the viewer it's an uphill battle to keep track of what's going on, or to get involved. Portraits Chinois does have potential as an interesting character-focused piece, but it never manages to get off the ground.
The one fundamental problem of Portraits Chinois, which it never overcomes, is that it is impossible to keep track of who is whom in the cast. The eight or ten main characters are "introduced" all in a bunch at a party, with their names mentioned only in passing. After this, it appears that the viewer is expected to recognize and remember all of these characters without any further help from the film. The plot is a tangle of relationships, with many scenes of two or more characters discussing a third person's relationships with other non-present characters... without a firm grasp of which name (and identity) is attached to which actor, none of it makes the least bit of sense.
Consequently, I spent the entire time watching the film in a constant struggle to figure out who was whom. After the start of the movie, I kept hoping that I would be able to catch up on identifying the characters, but if anything the problems got worse. It distinctly does not help that several of the female characters are physically similar to each other. My line of thought during the movie would go something like this: "They're talking about Lise... she is the assistant fashion designer, right? The one that Guido has a crush on? No, that's some other woman, the one with the dance show. Is Guido Ada's boyfriend? No, that's the other guy he's talking to. Wait, Lise is getting a job reading scripts. Is she really the one who is the fashion designer? Is she also the same one as the woman with the dance show?" And so on, ad nauseum.
As for the storyline itself... it probably would have helped a great deal if I'd been able to keep track of the characters better, but in any case I found the actions of many of them inexplicable. The characters are not developed enough to allow their behavior to develop naturally from what we know of them. It's ironic that one of the threads of the story involves an egocentric director upset over the lackluster reception for his latest film. "The character of Donald is weak," the producer tells him, but it's too late to change it now that the film has been released. In the case of Portraits Chinois, the character development and presentation is weak, but if anybody realized this, they realized it too late to change it. It ends up being difficult to care what happens to any of these characters: there are too many of them, and it's impossible to get really involved in their lives when it takes so much effort just to figure out who they are.
Helena Bonham Carter is really the only reason to watch the movie: her personality animates her role to a greater extent than we see with the other characters, and her character, Ada, becomes the only one with whom it's possible to make a connection. It's also interesting to see her show off her perfect French. And it's really perfect, too, not merely good, which is quite impressive.
It doesn't help the cause of Portraits Chinois that it's presented on DVD in an abysmal transfer. The movie is displayed in non-anamorphic 1.66:1 widescreen, its original aspect ratio. From the first moments of the film, with the jittery and blurry title shots, it's evident that this was the most lackluster of minimal-effort transfers. As the film itself gets underway, it's apparent that the image is noisy with print flaws scattered throughout.
The contrast is terrible. In the many indoor shots, if there isn't a direct source of illumination, the shot goes completely black in those areas. In fact, in one sex scene, the image was so dark that it was literally impossible to identify which characters were in the scene. And in any scene in which something is displayed against a bright background, forget about seeing any details: it's all black.
Colors are alternately drab and garish: neutral colors look washed-out, but bright colors like reds are too bright.
The subtitles are burned-in, and to add insult to injury, they're shadowless white subtitles, which means that on a light-colored background they disappear completely. So unless you understand French, forget about following any conversation in which the characters are in a light-colored room or wearing white clothing.
The audio quality is marginally better than the image quality, with a French Dolby 2.0 track more or less doing what a soundtrack is supposed to do. The general sound is flat and unappealing, and might as well be in mono; dialogue is not particularly clear. As an example of the production values of this DVD, the on-the-fly audio selection claims that the soundtrack is ENG 2.0, not French. Looks like a lot of people weren't paying attention when this film was put on DVD...
There are no other language tracks offered.
Portraits Chinois has no special features (unless you consider it special that it actually has chapter stops). It doesn't even have optional subtitles: the English subtitles are burned-in.
The transfer of Portraits Chinois is a disgrace... what a way to turn viewers off DVD! Even if you like this movie, don't buy this disc: you will hate the transfer, and it's best not to encourage this kind of treatment of a film by paying money for it.