Robert Pattinson seems like an affable sort of person, and it’s obvious that he has designs on becoming an actual actor outside of those insidious Twilight Saga movies. In this instance, it’s probably best to refer to Brian Prisco’s Welcome to the Rileys review, in which he stated, “For most actors, getting a regular gig on a television show or a film series is a boon, because essentially you can make enough money that you will never have to work again. The problem is — most actors want to work again.” Prisco was referring to Kristen Stewart, who had accepted a radically different role as a teenage stripper in an effort to shed the Bella Swan-ness. In the very same way, Pattinson has been attempting to shed the Edward Cullen taint; so far, he’s done an okay job in films like Remember Me and Water for Elephants, but neither of those roles gave him much room to stretch past his teen idol image.
It isn’t that Pattinson doesn’t show promise as an actor (because he does), but he needs the right role to prove himself and be taken seriously in the future. David Cronenberg’s upcoming Cosmopolis could do wonders for Pattinson’s career, but Bel Ami is not the right vehicle for Pattinson to prove himself. Part of the problem is that the movie itself is an inadequate adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel (which is formally titled Bel Ami: Or the History of a Scoundrel). The mechanics of the story are still intact, but there’s no spirit to be found, and the camera’s perspective is focused only upon Georges Duroy (Pattinson) as an object of other people’s alternating affections and/or disgust. The screenplay never really tells us what the book does about Duroy’s inner character and offers no real explanation for his continued motives. Instead, we are left primarily with his main sexual conquests’ aesthetic impressions of a swooner dreamboat. Those women include Madeline Forestier (Uma Thurman), Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), and Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas). It is impossible (especially in the presence of Thurman) not to compare Pattinson’s performance to that of John Malkovich as Vicomte de Valmont (in Dangerous Liaisons), who also bedded women to gain power. Naturally, Malkovich wins the competition, which does no favors for Bel Ami, but that’s the least of its troubles.
As presented in the movie, Bel Ami exists mostly as a series of vignettes of Pattinson’s bare ass as he beds several partners, including the fetching rack of Christina Ricci. Yet the underlying story focuses on the rise to power of Duroy from an ex-non-commissioned Army officer to one of the wealthiest and most socially influential men within high French society. The setting is 1890s Paris during the Belle Epoque with its booming of the French economy and associated colonialism. At the beginning, Duroy finds himself without even enough money to afford a prostitute with his beer until, by chance, he meets up with an old friend from the service, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who is doing quite well for himself as the political editor of La Vie Francaise, which aims to be “the newspaper that brings down the government.” Forestier gives Duroy some money to buy new evening clothes and invites him to dinner at his home, which is (of course) a huge mistake because Madeleine, Clotilde, and Virginie are immediately taken with Duroy’s handsome looks. Unfortunately, Duroy is written in the movie without any sense of charm at all, so it seems quite odd that he so quickly infiltrates the social circle and commences bedding the richest married women, gaining their trust, winning their favors, and breaking their hearts.
The smart thing about the book (and the only positive aspect that is also present in the movie) is that the females are behind every bit of genius that resided within the depicted society. The women, primarily Madeline, exist as the brains behind all journalistic achievement. Madeline dictates the vast majority of her husband’s newspaper copy, and when she meets Duroy, she does the same, for he is sadly unable to form even the most loosely structured set of ideas or paragraphs without her express guidance. The men largely see through this ruse, but Duroy wins favor with the women, who push him into increasing positions of power. The thing is, everyone in this society knows that sexual power games are part of the deal, but (by essentially bedding every adult female in sight) Duroy goes above and beyond the accepted norms and threatens the very nature of the institution. His colleagues begin to turn on him, which is inconvenient enough, but it’s Duroy’s own increasing greed, paranoia, and jealousy that cause his transformation into full-on monster. Or at least, that was what should have materialized but didn’t actually translate on screen.
If the character were written as the book intended, this could’ve been quite a meaty lead role indeed. Pattinson’s French accent isn’t terrible, and he’s clearly putting a lot of effort into his performance, but because Duroy is written as a two-dimensional player, it still feels like the Pattinson is playing at being a serious actor just as Duroy was playing at being a serious society player. Obviousy, Pattinson has proven himself to be quite adept at playing a century-old wooden character (namely Edward Cullen), but here, he must play a willfully detached, jaded one with an unfounded current of ambition bubbling up from within a frightening core. Unfortunately, the script never really tells us what’s going on underneath Duroy’s cool exterior or how he feels about any of the other characters, so the action just seems like an empty journey of sexual exploits and monetary rewards. By the end of the movie, Pattinson does manage to scare up a few instances of genuine emotion, especially during his dealings with Kristen Scott Thomas’ character, for the veins popping out of his pasty forehead were rather impressive. Of all of the supporting players, Thurman and Ricci both turn in good performances, but the rest of the cast seems entirely uninspired.
Bel Ami is definitely not for anyone who truly loves French period drama, nor is it the vehicle for changing people’s impressions of Pattinson. Here’s the ultimate question though: Does Pattinson distance himself markedly from his Twilight character? The answer is “yes, but not enough” because, try as I might, when Georges Duroy walks into the sunlight in the final scene of the movie, I half-expected him to sparkle. And that is a very bad sign. In short, Twihards will totally love this film, but anyone else should skip it.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at Celebitchy.