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Bel Ami (2012) - a second look

Eager to strip away his glittering vampire heartthrob image, Robert Pattinson doesn’t shy away from taking on unlikeable characters. Case in point is the new adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami. In its 7th big screen version, Pattinson plays the penniless ex-soldier Georges Duroy, who arrives in Paris at the end of the 19th century. In spite of his humble background (his poor peasant father has never even left Normandy), Georges dreams of wealth and a high standing in the society. A chance meeting with his former army comrade Charles Forestier, played by Life on Mars’ Philip Glenister, helps Georges to get a journalist position at “La Vie Française“, a politically-charged newspaper Charles is writing for. Too bad Georges can’t write a thing to save his life. Luckily for him, Charles’ smart and independent wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) is blessed with such talents and after having taken an apparent liking to the young man, agrees to write his articles. While she (initially) rejects his advances to sleep with her, she does indulge him in a precious secret – that the path to success in Paris leads through the hearts (and beds) of high society wives. Unwilling to spend his life in obscurity, Georges climbs up the social ladder by ruthlessly seducing one woman after another. That does not remain without consequences for everyone involved.

Twilightfangirls swooning over their beloved Robert Pattinson will be in for a major shock with Bel Ami. Obviously his role in Cosmopolis couldn’t be further removed from Edward Cullen, but at least that film isn’t being marketed as anything other than a Cronenbergian mind-fuck. However, some might go into Bel Ami expecting a historical romance with gentleman Georges seducing several women before finding true love. They will be in for a big surprise. Georges is, frankly, an asshole. One with a motive and a certain unfortunate background, but an asshole nonetheless. And the actor delivers. Twilight’s cast is constantly accused of a lack of talent, but this is about as fair as accusing Natalie Portman of inability to act based on the Star Wars prequels.

Pattinson’s motivation to take on the character, whom one of his mistress’ daughter nicknames “Bel Ami” (hence the title) is apparent as he could hardly be resembling the perfect love interest that is Edward less. It’s a smart move by Pattinson to look for roles unsimilar to his Twilight part even before the series is over in order to prevent typecasting. He’s a good match for Bel Ami’s casanova, playing him at with slick charm, but also a dark and brooding inner life. There is no sense of selflessness, romance or empathy in Georges Duroy as portrayed by Pattinson. His simple ambitions stem from a narcissistic and volatile character. After seducing the publisher’s seemingly pious wife, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, he shows himself openly disgusted by her when she can’t let go. There are no redeeming qualities to be found. The movie is also more explicit than Twihards are used to with Georges hooking with a prostitute and Christina Ricci’s Clotilde in naked sex romps. To put it simple, it is easy to see why Pattinson was attracted to this complex part.

Unfortunately, he did pick the wrong movie. At no point are the first-time directors Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan able to distinguish this film from a bulk of other costume dramas to come our way every year. Everything is done by the “How to make a historical drama 101” rulebook. The film is pretty to look at with its lavish costumes and an appropriate art direction, but it never rises above average. The cast escapes mostly unscathed here. Pattinson deserves some credit for his performance in a part that is severely underwritten for a character as complicated. There is little below the surface here. In the end Georges Duroy is unsympathetic to the point of being strongly unlikeable, but at the same time he’s not engaging enough (similar to Dangerous Liaisons’ Isabelle de Merteuil, played by Glenn Close) for the audiences to be invested in his character. The strong female supporting cast fares slightly better. Thurman as the proto-feminist makes a solid impression, whereas Kristin Scott Thomas’ transformation from a conservative and shy wife into a needy gushing teenager (basically representing your average female Twilight fan) to the point of self-embarrassment is the film’s standout. Christina Ricci as Georges’ first conquest is blander than the aforementioned two and exposes here little more than her body.

Whoever is expecting the definitive version of de Maupassant’s novel here akin to Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons will walk away disappointed. There is a good movie buried somewhere in the source material, but it is still waiting to be made. In this most recent adaptation the characters, their emotions and their motivations always remain distanced and cold. There is not enough wit to turn this into a satire and not enough depth for it to work as a social study. The completely superfluous subplot about a conspiracy which sees France invading Morocco is aimed to provide the film with some topicality, but just doesn’t sit right in the film and is thus buried beneath Georges’ affairs and sexual escapades.  

It is hard to see this film finding an audience. It is too shallow for high-brow audiences, while at the same time Pattinson’s character is just too unlikable for his teenage fans.

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