Friday, 21 September 2012

Movie review: Bel Ami by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod

Directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod;
written by Rachel Bennette,
based on a novel by Guy de Maupassant under the same title 

Robert Pattinson (Georges Duroy),
Uma Thurman (Madeleine Forestier),
Kristin Scott Thomas (Virginie Rousset),
Christina Ricci (Clotilde de Marelle),
Colm Meaney (Monsieur Rousset),
Philip Glenister (Charles Forestier),


1890, the capital of France. Georges Duroy is a very handsome young man who, after serving a spell as a cavalry officer in Algeria, tries to make his fortune in Paris. As he is neither very bright nor educated, coming from an impoverished Normandy farming family, and he hardly knows anybody, he is living in abject poverty. One night, though, at a raucous can-can joint he meets Charles Forestier, an old army buddy who is an editor at La Vie Française, a powerful Parisian newspaper. Forestier out of pity gives him some money to buy a new set of clothes so he can come for dinner. After that dinner Charles’s beautiful wife, Madeleine, helps Georges get a job at the paper by writing his first article for him. She also gives him a very useful tip: “The most important people in Paris aren’t the men but their wives.” When she refuses to sleep with him, George seduces her married and more ethusiastic friend, Clotilde de Marelle, who purchases a “love nest” for them, freeing George from his roach-infested garret he’d hated so much. It’s Clotilde’s little daughter who nicknames George “Bel Ami,” loosely translated in this case to, ‘That Hot Wuss’ (officially ‘beautiful friend’in French).

When Charles Forestier dies from tuberculosis Georges instantly pounces on Madeleine and marries her. Madeleine doesn't love him but she appreciates his looks and bedroom skills. She uses him also to indulge her literary gifts that she, as a respectable woman, cannot openly showcase. Georges can't write one decent sentence, but he becomes the pliable instrument of his wife's ambitions. However it doesn’t mean he is completely idle – soon afterwards he zeros in on Virginie Rousset, the virtuous wife of the newspaper’s top editor, and seduces her in a church. After a single night with him, Virginie becomes a complete doormat, cooing instantly “my beautiful boy” to her transparently disgusted lover. Still it is not enough for more and more greedy Georges.

Ultimately he discovers that he's not respected and has been manipulated by his more intelligent wife. He arranges a divorce, catching her in flagranti with a politician, and then he devises a 'coolly efficient' revenge, which just happens to involve, surprise, surprise, seducing a fourth woman, the young daughter of Virginie with a dowry fit for a princess. She's young and fresh, if otherwise not very interesting, sort of like Georges himself, and she agrees to elope with him just because she knows her parents would oppose their match the most. That’s how Duroy ends up filthy rich, married to the most desirable heiress in Paris. A complete success, right? 

My impressions:

I admit I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to watch this movie at all. On the one hand there was Kristin Scott Thomas which I like and appreciate as an actress. On the other hand there was Robert Pattinson aka Edward Cullen, the sparkling wampire which I would love to forget, preferably for my lifetime. Finally I was tempted to borrow and see it, mainly because I have a thing or two for the 19th century, Guy de Maupassant novels and French literature in general. Sadly it proved to be a mistake. 

This movie is another proof that Robert Pattinson is a big black hole of talent. In his hands George is a naive and petulant opportunist, simultaneously devious and dumb. He is neither a fun villain nor a secret good guy, just an ornament- that’s why this movie, focusing entirely on the character of Bel Ami who should be portrayed as a direct descendant of the Vicomte de Valmont in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” but with an added layer of cruelty, felt senseless to me. Even with his pants down on top of Clotilde or coldly manhandling poor besotted Virginie George played by Pattinson was the dullest scoundrel imaginable. The effect was as if you were shown a stupid Hamlet or a wooden King Lear. In the scenes set in the beautiful villa he comes to share with Madeleine, I found myself focusing on the wallpaper, delicious bookcases and different knick-knacks behind him, which were equally beautiful, but far more interesting. Lowering your gaze and flashing a vampirish glare is not acting, it’s making faces. Stupid faces.

The movie also gives short shrift to the interesting collusion between the newspaper and the government in setting the stage for a secret North African invasion that will enrich them all. Although this is potentially juicy stuff, presented from Georges/Robert point of view it is as dry and tasteless as a shrunken piece of lemon left forgotten in the refrigerator. The script seems to be too sketchy and Pattinson simply lacks the recources to show any inner life of his character. As a result the movie is less a tale of intricate scheming and more one about a lucky airhead who fails upward just because he is so insanely good-looking. Well, actually watching Robert Pattinson I really wondered what all these women saw in his character. Bushy, dark eyebrows perchance?

Final verdict: 

"Bel Ami" is hardly the first screen adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant novel (there was also a 1947 version starring George Sanders) and certainly not one to be remembered as something special. In fact, the casting of an inexpressive pinup boy in the lead role is the most up-to-date thing about Bel Ami. Everything else is painfully conventional if not downright dull - definitely not enough to make this a contemporary rethink of a classic tale about a career of a male whore or even an entertaining movie. Pity.

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