'Bel Ami': Messy History
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
It's not Robert Pattinson's fault. Non-fans, and critics, and both, like to rag on the young British-born "Twilight" star, because his actual acting ability frequently seems somewhat disproportionate to his extra-"Twilight" performing ambitions. And that, indeed, is the impression he gives in "Bel Ami," a relentlessly leaden rethink of the rollicking tale of opportunism and social-climbing in late 19th-century Paris by Guy de Maupassant.
You'd never know what an entertaining and resourceful writer de Maupassant was from the disjointed evidence of this movie, but for now we'll let that issue be subordinate to Topic A, Pattinson. The young man glares and smirks his way through this movie in a most narrow and irritating fashion, but, as I said before, it's not his fault. This "Bel Ami" reconfigures the deft rogue Georges Duroy into a petulant, truculent cipher.
It's kind of staggering. Satirical elements aside, the source material has a crackling enough storyline (machinations worthy of "All About Eve" played out against a backdrop of ultra-circumscribed class differences and the Battle of the Sexes when is was more overtly chesslike) that it's a can't-miss story in almost any genre. (Hell, the "adult" adaptation of 1976 starring Harry Reems was kind of charming.) And yet the adaptation of scriptwriter Rachel Bennette and directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, while attempting to add an overtly feminist subtext that's redundant to say the least, stumbles over all of the story elements that could, or rather that did, make Duroy's rise appallingly compelling.
What we get instead is a dumb, entitled-but-tortured dreamboat falling into bed with a bunch of aristocratic women, and then turning inexplicably and insupportably Machiavellian only after he's thoroughly slighted. First charming the throaty, free-spirited Madame Forestier (Uma Thurman, giving the film's most engaged performance, to little avail), then the apparently erotically frustrated and still slightly gaminesque Clotilde (Christina Ricci, who looks pretty comfortable striking poses inspired by Degas's odalisques, bless her heart) and finally wife-of-hated-boss Virginie (Kristin Scott-Thomas), Pattinson maintains the air of a kid being sent to bed without dessert.
The political intrigue and careerist backbiting that also fuel Duroy's corrupt momentum are provided little less than lip service. What we get instead is a series of set pieces that strain credulity for a period piece and don't even maintain an internal logic. After Clotilde makes such a big deal out of the idea that she and Duroy can't be seen together in public on account of she's married and all, there's a big scene in which Duroy takes her out on the town and into a Moulin-Rouge-type joint where he's spotted by a prostitute whose wares he's sampled in a prior scene, and who spits in Duroy's face when he snubs her. That's an example of the redundant feminist subtext mentioned above, and also kind of ridiculous in a more practical sense, given that prostitutes through the ages have had an innate sense that scuffling in public with one-time and perhaps future clients is bad for business.
The more experienced moviegoer may experience relief from the movie's tedium by recalling the much better period pieces that female member of the cast have appeared in. Seeing Thurman in elaborate costume brought back fond memories of the much edgier and coherent and fun "Dangerous Liasons." For Ricci, of course, there's "Prozac Nation," no, wait, sorry, the appealingly bloody Gothic "Sleepy Hollow." And for Scott-Thomas, well, when her character finds out that Duroy has just left the army after serving for five years in Algiers, she says "I once heard a rather foolish story about the desert," and of course I thought, "You mean 'The English Patient'?" Kidding. I wasn't as crazy about that movie as many others were, but it's really "Casablanca" compared to "Bel Ami."
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.