If you loved Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon – the epic period drama about a beguiling rogue who manipulates (read: boinks) his way to the top of 18th century European society – but would prefer to skip all of those gory battle scenes and have the run time cut down from three hours to an economical 100 minutes, you might enjoy a new film called Bel Ami.
Based on the 1885 French eponymous novel by Guy de Maupassant (with a screenplay by Rachel Bennette) Bel Ami is directed by the team of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. Robert Pattinson (best known for his roles as vampire Edward Cullen from the Twilight film franchise) stars as Georges Duroy, a young, impoverished former soldier who moves to Paris in the 1890s to, literally, seek his fortune. Living in squalor and unemployed, Georges has a chance reunion with Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), an acquaintance from his time in the military, and sufficiently charms his way not only into a job as a journalist but also into Forestier’s inner social /political circle. Forestier’s beautiful and well-educated wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), introduces Georges to her good friends Clotilde (Christina Ricci) and Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), both married, but ripe for distraction. Georges wastes no time in taking full advantage of Clotilde’s obvious attraction to him. The two embark on a a smoldering affair, which is the Georges’ first major seduction – his preferred method for bringing about the cooperation/ruination of anyone who would stand in the way of his quest for fame, riches and glory.
As the strong willed but appropriately vulnerable Madeleine (who eventually becomes Georges’ first wife), Uma Thurman steals every scene she is in. Her character’s insistence on maintaining her social and financial equality with the duplicitous Georges (who is unlikeable in almost every way and looks like he needs a bath in nearly every scene) also makes her the film’s most admirable / sympathetic character. What I found so engaging about Bel Ami was observing the manner in which Georges’ single-minded ambition becomes increasingly ruthless while remaining largely surreptitious.
To give up much more of the plot here would mean revealing “spoilers,” and this film is one that needs to unfold for the viewer on its own. Costumes, art direction and the original classical soundtrack (composed by Rachel Portman) are all first-rate and add authenticity to the film’s setting. The acting is excellent by all female leads and while the jury is still out on R Patz, he successfully portrays Georges as a vacuous but hard-hearted individual who is able to successfully use people as his means to an end because they are so easily able to project their emotions and desires onto his conscienceless, blank canvas of a persona. If I said I’d never met an individual like Georges in my own life, I’d be lying.
Bel Ami (Rated R for Sex and Nudity) opens Friday, June 8th 2012 at Sunshine Cinema 5, located at 143 East Houston Street, New York, NY.