Film Review – Bel Ami
The ruthless cad who makes his way through the world manipulating and ruining people without a care: this character is as timeless as the gritty private eye or the all-American hero. The problem is that he is also the easiest character to phone in, with the filmmakers just giving us the archetype and avoiding doing anything else. In Bel Ami (2012), not only does the character of this type feel like it is on autopilot, but the whole film does, as well.
Robert Pattinson takes on this antihero role in the form of Georges Duroy, a former solider in 1890s Paris. He has no money and few prospects. He runs into an old commander, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who is now a journalist. Forerstier invites Georges to dinner and hopes to help him out. At the party, Georges meets three women who play a major part in his rise to power: Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman), the commander’s wife; Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), a young noblewoman who early on becomes Georges’s lover; and, finally, Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas), the wife of Rousset (Colm Meaney), who is the owner of a newspaper. The women, charmed by Georges, convince Rousset to let him write some articles for the paper. Madeleine takes to helping him write (actually, writing for him) and gives him advice on how to charm and win over the women so he will be able to advance in society. This blatant exposition is what gives this film most of its forward momentum.
Pattinson is given a great deal of grief for being in the Twilight movies, and is often treated as just a pretty face who cannot act, which seems unfair for having such a small filmography. Here, though, I have no idea what to make of him, because the film doesn’t ask much of him. We are told over and over that Georges has a way of flattering the women around him and getting them to help him advance in the world. Those moments, though, are never shown. We see him make a very awkward exchange with Virginie Walters; she looks embarrassed and her friends look uneasy, and all he does is offer her some pears. In the next scene, he has apparently won her over and gotten her to convince her husband to give him not only his job back, but a promotion, as well.
These type of odd moments take the place of what should be moments of Georges actually showing off his strength as a manipulator. Instead, he seems more like a guy who got lucky and things just happen to work out for him. Georges is supposed to be driven by his desire not to be poor, yet this is never shown. We are treated to an over the top score that tries to make the scenes feel like they have more weight than they really do, punctuated with Georges sitting in the dark looking troubled. There is a vague political issue that his paper is involved in, but the motivations and the real issues related to this are never given. We get no explanations as to why anyone feels strongly about it, so it is impossible to take it seriously. What we are left with is little more than a pretty boy who attempts a French accent, and then doesn’t even bother to do that right, and just looks intensely at the screen.
These moments do not end with Georges. None of the women are given much to do that makes sense. Clotilde de Marelle is apparently Georges’s true love, yet the sense of their relationship is never defined. While Virginie Walters is reduced to being helplessly in love with Georges, with even less information given, it makes her devotion seem ridiculously over the top. Madeleine Forestier is given a little more depth. She is able to use Georges to get her opinions and ideas out in the paper; yet, while it seems that there could be other levels to her, like everyone else, the filmmakers keep her at a distance and she becomes just as much a cipher as the rest of the cast.
This all culminates in a feeling that the film really has nothing that it wants to say. These stories of people seeking advancement at any cost have been told many times before (even this film’s source material, a novel by Guy de Maupassant, has been made into a film two other times at least). To make any kind of impact, characters and situations in a film need to try to grab the audience. Here, co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are content to put in the minimal amount of effort and just hope we recognize the basic story and stay involved. You may be able to get through the film, but I doubt anyone will remember it afterwords.
Final Grade: C