WFTB Score: 9/20
The plot: Amoral, amorous and absolutely skint, soldier Georges Duroy comes to Paris and latches onto army acquaintance Charles Forestier looking to get on in the world. Although Forestier’s wife is, initially at least, immune to his charms, he’s more successful with the impressionable Clothilde. However, what Duroy – variously renamed Duroy de Cantel and ‘Bel Ami’ – really cares about is money and influence; the key to both may ultimately come from upright Mme Rousset.
Slumming it in a single, dirty room on his return from Algiers, Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) looks upon the wealthy citizens of Paris with a jaded, jealous eye. A chance meeting with fellow soldier Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) offers an invitation to more polite society. Charles’ politically astute wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) helps Georges to write a column for newspaper La Vie Française, while Georges begins an affair with neglected wife Clotilde (Christina Ricci). When Charles – dubbed ‘Bel Ami’ by Clotilde’s daughter – discovers that Duroy has no talent whatsoever, the chancer is forced to turn to Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), who resists Duroy’s reluctant advances but gets him a job in charge of gossip.
Still full of ambition, Georges takes Forestier’s wife and job as soon as his old friend dies, though Madeleine is apparently more interested in France’s plans for Morocco and her friend the Comte de Vaudrec (Anthony Higgins) than her impetuous new husband. Jealous of his exclusion from the in crowd, Georges begins an affair with Virginie; scandal is sure to follow, though the Roussets may offer an ultimate insurance policy in the shape of their young daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger).
Two films immediately came to mind as I watched Bel Ami. The first, Dangerous Liaisons, had a similar setting, a similar sense of scandal beneath the surface and a similar (if younger) Uma Thurman. The second, Barry Lyndon, featured an eerily similar tale of a handsome but penniless man making his way in the world by whatever means necessary. Of course, it can’t be helped that this came out well after Kubrick and Frears’ films, and the theme of the social climber is a movie staple (Sunset Blvd, to name just one more); on the other hand, knowing what had gone before it, Bel Ami had a lot of work to do to feel different and fresh.
It doesn’t. The perfectly decent set dressing and costuming recreates late 19th Century Paris quite nicely, but the things unique to Bel Ami, its tale of murky politics and finances surrounding France’s intentions in North Africa, and the even murkier relationship between press and government, come and go without making the impact they should; Rachel Bennette’s script joins the dots between the political intrigues, but concentrates far too much on Georges and his women.
Unfortunately, you rarely get a sense of what Pattinson’s character is about, beyond his piercing, sulky glare and determination to – pardon my French – shag his way to the top. Is he driven by the shame of his impoverished background? Or the desire to control others? Is he a slave to psychopathic greed and lust? The answers are lost as the film reduces the tale, more or less, to Georges loving Clotilde but using Madeleine and Virginie to his advantage. I suspect the film suffers from the same problem as Brideshead Revisited or Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice, namely that it sprints through details and incidents that need to occur at a more deliberate pace for us to feel their importance.
Given that the story itself is much less interesting than it might have been, Bel Ami could still have distinguished itself by having an edgy atmosphere, by really getting into the decay of Georges’ mind. The problem is, for a film that was billed as an erotic tale of lust and seduction, it feels far too often like a polite period drama, a feeling bolstered by the uninspired, string-heavy score.
Its occasional glimpses of nudity are just that, glimpses, something to spice up the trailer; and while a more explicit film might have been no better, it would have made Bel Ami vastly more memorable. As it is, the story plays out with the plot and film-making seldom threatening to excite or surprise – a notable exception is when Madeleine turns the tables and uses sex as a weapon against Georges.
Nor do the actors do much to make their roles feel substantial. It’s not that anyone’s bad* – indeed, the multi-national cast do well to find a common English accent to represent their Frenchness (!) – but equally nobody stands out, the always-excellent Scott Thomas excepted. Pattinson looks intense but doesn’t inhabit the part to any degree, while Thurman acquits herself rather better than Ricci, who feels studied and stilted by comparison (and certainly looks an unlikely mother). It doesn’t help, either, that Glenister and Meaney, with their facial hair, look very similar, though Glenister remedies the situation when his consumptive cough carries him off.
Bel Ami has widely been labelled a dud. It certainly has little to interest Pattinson’s Twilight fans, and those looking for Maupassant’s biting satire will be disappointed to find a grim-faced drama, for the most part indifferently performed. Still, although it’s not nearly as painterly as Barry Lyndon, or as vicious as Dangerous Liaisons, it’s a handsome and competently constructed film that’s far from terrible and suggests a novel worth seeking out. Mad as it might sound, this film would have benefitted from taking a leaf out of Kubrick’s book by pausing, though not for too long, to let events sink in.
NOTES: Actually, I wasn’t particularly convinced by James Lance’s Foreign Minister, though that’s probably because I’ve spent years thinking of him as Ben in I’m Alan Partridge.