Bel Ami presents an audience with a number of challenges. An adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel of the same name, which was first published in 1885, it’s set in an era that’s largely been unexplored in film. It takes a familiar story, that of the ambitious social climber who uses their attractiveness to achieve their success. It’s a costume melodrama in a summer of blockbuster superhero movies. Whether the approach to the story works or not, however, is up for debate.
Robert Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, a young soldier who’s just returned from the Algerian frontier, and is attempting to scratch out an existence in Paris. By chance, he meets with a former comrade who has a position at an opposition newspaper. Georges is invited to attend a dinner party to meet with his former comrade, the newspaper’s editor, their two wives and another female friend. All the women are immediately drawn to this beautiful newcomer, and are eager to help him ascend, or help themselves into his bed. Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci) seems the most interested initially. With an absent husband, Clotilde’s an obvious candidate to become Duroy’s first mistress. While his tryst with Clotilde seems to make him happy, Georges soon sets his sights on the intelligent and independent Madeline Forestier (Uma Thurman), the wife of his former comrade, who’s become quite ill. Very soon, he’s taking a trip to the seaside cottage where his comrade is convalescing, and very soon after, dies. Georges quickly makes his move, becoming Madeline’s husband, and breaking Clotilde’s heart. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Madeline is perhaps too much for Georges, both in terms of intelligence and her beliefs about her own independence. All the while Georges rises at the newspaper, jumping from freelance writer to head of gossip to lead political writer without displaying much of anything in the way of talent, other than being able to get women to do whatever he wants, including Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of the editor of Georges’ paper.
Although Robert Pattinson’s character is the central one of the film, it’s the women who really shine through. Ricci’s good performance, as a woman who seems to genuinely care for Georges as a person, and not just as a beautiful body, is welcome. Thurman’s Madeline is a more complicated character. Thurman gives Madeline a sense of sophistication that makes her decision to marry Georges all the more mystifying, since she’s more than his physical equal and far surpasses him mentally. Thomas’ role is also quite complicated. She’s a woman at the height of society, the wife of a prominent and wealthy man possessed with grace and intelligence. It doesn’t take much attention from Georges, however, to turn Thomas into a love-sick girl, wiling to humiliate herself for the slightest sign of affection from the young man. The movie looks great, too, and the costuming and set design transport the audience to the Belle Epoque in a genuine way.
But it’s Pattinson’s performance that’s supposed to carry the film, and he doesn’t seem up to the task. Georges is like the dark mirror image of Edward Cullen. He’s an amoral man who uses sex to get what he wants, because he possesses no discernable talent or intelligence for anything else. But such a character has to at the very least be compelling to watch. Shakespeare’s Richard III is a moral monster and physically deformed, but he seduces the audience to at the very least see his point of view, making his machinations compelling. Whether the fault is with Pattinson’s performance, the writing or the direction of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, doesn’t matter. Georges simply isn’t compelling enough for the audience to understand why so many are willing to go to such lengths on his behalf. The audience doesn’t get to play along, so much as watch in dumbstruck horror as the pretty man gets everything he wants. Donnellan and Ormerod don’t even give the audience enough to show how the wheels are turning in Georges’ head. He doesn’t appear devious so much as seeming the recipient of repeated strokes of dumb luck. The filmmakers also don’t aid Pattinson’s cause by including a number of strange sequences that make him look like a monster. And none of the compelling performances of the women involved help to shed light on anything other than Georges’ cruelty and moral and intellectual emptiness.
Bel Ami will likely be a good time for older Pattinson fans wanting to see a more adult side to their crush of the moment, or for those who love period melodramas. It could also appeal to those who enjoy good performances by women. But Bel Ami isn’t likely to grab a hold of the audience as a whole, no matter how many bodices may be ripped along the way.