Robert Pattinson in a drama that’s all about sex and power should be enough to have teenage girls (and many a gay man) wetting their knickers, although this certainly isn’t a film for twi-hards. Pattinson plays George Duroy, who in 19th Century France leaves the army and heads to Paris to make his fortune. He soon realises that he needs contacts, and that even if he can get one or two of those, no one is simply going to hand him the treasures he wants.
The fact he has few skills would seem an impediment, but what he’s well aware of that he has one thing in his favour, he’s irresistible to women. This starts to become his way into Parisian high society, picking the ladies who can offer him his next step up the ladder. His conquests include the forthright and astute Clothilde (Christina Ricci), the devoted and normally faithful Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), and Madeleine (Uma Thurman), a woman who in the modern day would be smashing through the glass ceiling, but in 19th Century France has to settle with being a professional wife whose light must shine through the men she’s with. While each woman thinks they’ve got a handle on George, they underestimate just how ruthless and determined he is.
This film version of Guy De Maupassant’s 1885 novel is a bit of a mixed bag. It’s incredibly handsomely mounted, the acting is good – particularly from the women, with Uma Thurman giving an absolutely barnstorming performance – and there are plenty of intriguing things going on. The problem is that there’s so much going on that in 100 minutes it feels like you’re just getting a potted version of a much longer tale (indeed, as I watched I kept feeling this should have been a mini-series). Some have criticised Robert Pattinson’s performance, but he’s actually very good, it’s his character in relation to the movie that’s the issue.
Duroy is a sociopath, who acts like a blank slate for the women around him to project their wants and needs onto. It is the women who are the most interesting, trapped by society and trying to find a way to fulfilment – and misjudging George in the process. However in trying to cram each of these complex women into a 100 minute running time it feels like you’re not getting the full value of any of them.
It’s a shame, as one of the great strengths of the book isn’t just the subversive fact that it’s about a man clawing his way to the top using sex, with absolutely no morals or remorse, but also that it wonderfully unpeels the way women are crushed by a patriarchal society that can allow Duroy to exist but which refuses to allow them to breathe. Some of that comes across in the film, but it rushes through the story so fast that you’re mainly left with Duroy, and there’s little more to him than callous ambition and a shrewd heartlessness. He is meant to be a cypher and reflection of the cold truth of the world around him, which is hidden by social mores, but with so little time to add flesh to the tales’ bone it doesn’t fully work.
The film is certainly not a complete write off, but its successes are more that it constantly hints at something greater than what it actually is. From the power of sex and passion, to its subplots about the money to be made from war, Bel Ami is all very intriguing, but in the end, these are more like good reason to read Guy De Maupassant’s novel, than making it a worthwhile movie in its own right.
The Blu-ray looks gorgeous though, really showing off the luscious recreation of 19th Century Parisian society, backed up by a sharp and well mixed 5.1 soundtrack (it’s one of the few period film, where a surround mix genuinely adds something to the film). There isn’t a massive amount in the features department but the short behind-the-scenes featurette and the cast and crew interviews are worth a look.
Overall Verdict: Some good acting and plenty of intriguing hints about sexual politics and the ruthlessness of class, but it rushes the story far too much to be a wholly successful drama in its own right.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac