Bel Ami (United Kingdom/France/Italy, 2012)May 30, 2012
If the goal of Bel Ami was to capture a fleeting flavor of Dangerous Liaisons, the intention should be deemed a failure. Based on Guy de Maupassant's 1885 novel, Bel Ami is the meandering, unfocused tale of the rise of an unprincipled opportunist in the upper class circles of late 19th century Paris. The film, co-directed by Brits Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, falls into a trap common to movie adaptations of complex books: by cramming too much plot into a short running time (in this case, 102 minutes), character nuances are lost and valuable subplots are jettisoned. Viewers end up watching thinly-drawn individuals being forced from one unnatural circumstance to another because that's what the narrative demands, not because it necessarily makes sense.
At least the set design and costumes are excellent. The movie feels overstuffed and undercooked but it always looks nice. It's as if the setting is waiting for a story worthy of its verisimilitude, which this one isn't. Done right, this could have been an emotionally compelling melodrama. Done wrong, which is the unfortunate case, it's something of a bore. Nothing much happens, unless you count bed-hopping and empty, flowery dialogue to be spectator sports.
Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is an ex-British military man who has come to Paris to make his fortune. By chance, he meets an old acquaintance, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who offers to give him a break by writing an article for the paper, La Vie Francaise, where Forestier works as an editor. Duroy is a poor writer, so Forestier's wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), helps him with the project. When he makes an inexpert pass at her, she tersely informs him that she will not be his mistress but hopes they can be good friends. She suggests his male needs might be better served if he visits her young companion, Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), whose husband is often absent. She also recommends that he befriend Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), the influential wife of Rousset (Colm Meaney), the publisher of La Vie Francaise. In short order, Duroy has begun an affair with Clotilde and has won the favor of Virginie. When Forestier dies of consumption, Duroy is ready to replace him - both by marrying his widow and by taking his place at the paper. He continues his ambitious social climbing by relying on the words and money of others and by ruthlessly manipulating those with whom he develops relationships.
In addition to the uneven, perfunctory nature of the screenplay, Bel Ami is not helped by the quality of acting. To give Robert Pattinson credit, he is obviously trying to distance himself from the Twilight movies, even though their success is likely the reason why he was given this role. For whatever reason, he is ill-equipped to play Duroy; he brings little to the part and the character becomes a frustrating enigma, devoid of passion or drive. It is perhaps unfair to call Pattinson a "single note" actor, yet one can't help but wonder whether a more accomplished thespian might have crafted a memorable figure from the threadbare remnants of a personality established by the script. Meanwhile, his three leading ladies offer performances of variable quality. Uma Thurman, who appeared in the most famous of the Dangerous Liaisons adaptations, is the most consistent. Christina Ricci is an imperfect fit for the period and has difficulties with the accent. The most disappointing is Kristin Scott Thomas, who starts out fine but goes over the top late in the proceedings.
The film courts "adult" audiences by offering flashes of flesh; without them, this undoubtedly would have received a PG-13 rating from the MPAA. The nudity comes from Christina Ricci, who briefly displays her breasts on a couple of occasions, and Robert Pattinson, whose bare posterior will no doubt delight his (mostly) female fan base. Ricci is no stranger to on-screen toplessness but the Pattinson nakedness may be a draw. Magnolia Pictures is no doubt hoping so because, other than that, there's little here to lure people into theaters. Bel Ami is too slow and takes itself too seriously to work as a juicy, period piece soap opera and not nearly intelligent enough to mark an effective replication of its classic source material.
Bel Ami (United Kingdom/France/Italy, 2012)
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colm Meaney, Holly Grainger, Philip Glenister
Screenplay: Rachel Bennette, based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant
Cinematography: Stefano Falivene
Music: Rachel Portman
U.S. Distributor: Magnolia Pictures