Title: Bel Ami
Director: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod
Screenwriter: Rachel Bennette
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 6/4/12
Opens: June 8, 2012
Simply put, “Bel Ami,” which means “good friend,” is about a man who rises to the top by, well, rising to the top. An empty-headed fellow in the Paris of 1890 finds that his one and only attribute, his pretty-boy good looks, is the only skill he needs to acquire wealth and celebrity. He does so by manipulating a group of upper-middle-class women, each of whom reacts to him in a special way but all of whom fall prey to his powers of seduction.
The story is based on a novel of the same name by Guy De Maupassant, written five years before the events unfold at a time that the author was succumbing to syphilis. The tale sheds light on the corrupt ways by which a mere clerk uses the intellectual powers of one woman and the emotional needs of others, while De Maupassant takes on the machinations of the media as well. You come away from the story realizing that the same tactics of both media and men are not out of style in present-day America as well. You also leave the theater with the impression that if a man has good looks or money, the women whose paths he crosses will virtually faint with desire or seethe with covetousness.
Robert Pattinson appears in virtually every frame of “Bel Ami” as Georges Duroy, a penniless clerk with experience in Algeria whose bravery is on exhibit for us only when he clobbers a roach in his hovel of a flat. Running into Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), an old friend from the army who offers him entry into a politically hip newspaper, La Vie Français, he attends a dinner at the buddy’s house where he meets and charms the man’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), a coquettish Clotilde (Christina Ricci) who husband is conveniently traveling, and the staid Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the newspaper’s editor, M. Rousset (Colm Meany).
Since women at the time did not hold society’s respect in the professions, Madeleine uses Duroy to get her opinions published, ghost-writing an article for him in much the way she had done the same for her husband—the latter being the laughing-stock of the employees who are aware of the setup. Since Madeleine insists that she would never be Georges’ mistress, he initiates an affair with Clotilde, the only woman he has come closest to genuinely loving, begins an affair with Virginie who is married to the paper’s editor, then setting his sights on the editor’s young daughter, Suzanne (Holliday Grainger).
Robert Pattinson is in one case appropriately cast as a vampire in “Bel Ami,” although this time only in a figurative sense—sucking the blood of women who seem unable to resist him, one and all, energized by the sustenance this intellectually malnourished clod derives from the fair sex. On the other hand Pattinson lacks the gravitas the role requires: he appears so completely empty, standing about and smiling often contemptuously, possessing no Shavian wit in his conversations with his cooperative victims, that one wonders how such a man (at least in current times) would land a second date.
We’d have appreciated more exposition on the political aspects of the story, which involves a secret plan by a vampiric France to take over Morocco to bleed the North African country of its resources. Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, were previous known for a fifteen-minute short (“The Big Fish”), while writer Rachelle Bennette, whose “The Rendezvous” was an adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story for BBC4, sticks closely to the novel—eliminating only the uncomfortable visit that Georges and Madeleine had made to the former’s peasant father.
Uma Thurman has never looked better, evoking a professionalism head-and-shoulders above that of Pattinson. Stefano Falieven photographed the movie in Budapest to stand in for Paris (sections of that beautiful Hungarian capital often substitutes for a Paris that no longer exists). Rachel Portman’s music blasts away to compensate for the lack of chemistry between Pattinson and his many women.
Rated R. 102 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – B-
Technical – B-
Overall – B-