Social Climbing in the Bedroom
A strong cast, elegant costume and production design, and a moving original score can't save a film built upon an uninspired foundation. This has been proven numerous times, and it is proven once again here.
Based on a celebrated French novel first published in 1885 and first adapted for the screen in the thirties, the film stars Robert Pattinson in an arresting performance as Georges, a destitute soldier who has come to Paris to earn or steal his fortune. A chance encounter with a former brother-in-arms from a campaign in northwestern Africa, a man who is now a respected journalist and editor, begins Georges' journey. He enters exclusive, refined spheres populated by Paris' most powerful figures. Presenting himself as dangerous and romantic, he seduces several aristocratic women, including Madeleine (Uma Thurman, in fine form and as beautiful as ever), his friend's sharp, talented, and political wife, and they in turn help him rise in prominence, but how much can he achieve before disaster befalls him?
It is obvious throughout this film represents a severe, mechanical reduction of a much longer and richer novel. Important events come fast and furious, often without connective tissue or a sense of momentum. Most unfortunate is the fact there are several interesting concepts at play (a strong-willed wife using her husband's influence and position to convey thoughts she cannot express in public herself due to constricting gender roles, for example, or a nineteenth-century example of the press and the government conspiring to start a profitable foreign war), but none are given the time they deserve. Quantity reigns supreme over quality.
Most of the characters feel either interchangeable (Georges' scheming male rivals) or inconsistent (a lover played by Kristin Scott Thomas whose actions seem determined by specific requirements of the plot from scene to scene rather than her own mind), and heightened instances of political conflict, sexual desire, and, in the end, personal vengeance do not electrify as intended.
Only one third-act scene has complex and genuine power, one in which Georges explains his single-minded, often cruel pursuit of influence and opulence by describing a childhood defined by hunger and despair and then saying with wild-eyed conviction, "There is no next life, and I intend to live." It is a shame then this second-rate film, undeserving of its dedicated cast and top-notch technical craftsmen, shows us the surface details of several events in this man's singular life, but denies us sustained insight into the intense longings and torments driving him and also those felt by the individuals he seduces and destroys.