Robert Pattinson plays serial seducer Georges Duroy in a new adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel "Bel Ami."
The year is 1890. Duroy, fresh out of the Army, is looking to start a new life in Paris. A former Army colleague, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), gives Duroy a job, and a leg up in Parisian society, introducing him to a newspaper editor named Rousset (Colm Meaney) and his wife Virginie. More importantly, Forestier’s own wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), gives Duroy her assistance, helping him write a sensationalistic newspaper column on the life of a cavalry officer posted to the desert--and advising him not to spend too much of his time courting the city’s powerful men. If he wants to be a success, Madeleine tells Duroy, it’s the wives he should concentrate on.
Duroy is no skilled writer, and he’s slow to learn the intricacies of politics and intrigue amongst the privileged class. But he’s irresistible to women, and in this way Madeleine’s advice dovetails with his own abilities.
Before long, Duroy is juggling several well-heeled and well-connected women; he marries one, he uses another for purely venal purposes, and the third, a radiant young woman named Clotilde (Christina Ricci), he seems to love. Certainly, she loves him; lovers, mistresses, and marriages of convenience swirl through the story, but when Clotilde speaks of their relationship it’s in a matrimonial manner. They are not married, but that hardly matters to her; she refers to the man to whom she’s wedded as her "other husband," suggesting that whatever depths Duroy might sink to in order to climb socially, theirs is a connection that will persevere.
And those depths are vertiginous: Competing schemes are afoot to topple the government, loot Morocco, and generally prey on the poor, the weak, and the naïve. In this milieu, Duroy is not at all out of place. His talent and his smarts might be limited, but his ambition and his ruthlessness are strictly grade alpha male.
"Bel Ami," published in 1885 (five years before the setting of this film) bears more than a passing resemblance to another great French melodrama, Choderlos de Laclos’ "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." The stories share a sense of ferocious competition and sexual conquest. ("Bel Ami" also focuses for a time on a conspiracy to drive France toward colonizing Morocco, for the vast enrichment of a few powerful insiders.)
That’s not a bad thing in itself, and Uma Thurman’s presence in the cast is a plus since she is something of a bridge between this film and the 1988 film version of "Dangerous Liaisons," directed by Stephen Frears, in which Thurman costarred alongside Glenn Close and John Malkovich.
But Pattinson, while proving he has much greater range and versatility than his role in the "Twilight" movies might suggest, is no Malkovich, and neither is Duroy the equal of Valmont, the nobleman who is one-half of the powerful, malevolent couple at the heart of "Dangerous Liaisons." Frears’ movie had bite, and venom, too; the characters in his film were repugnant, but also fascinating.
Unfortunately, that’s not true here. Co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod present characters who are flawed, sometimes vile, and altogether desperate; but the source of their desperation is not always clear, and by the time yet another Paris matron throws herself at Duroy, shock and disgust give way to exasperation (fascination is stubbornly absent throughout). "Dangerous Liaisons" tweaked our sensibilities, pummeled our sense of justice, and all but drew blood; in short, it made an impression by tearing a chunk out of our hides. By contrast, and in spite of some fine performances and handsome production design, it’s all "Bel Ami" can do to raise a rash.