LAST time Robert Pattinson took a step away from the Twilight saga, he was upstaged by an elephant.
Bel Ami (15)
Directors: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod
Running time: 102 minutes
* * *
That might explain the mere half-step this time, from vampire predator to sexual predator – except Bel Ami was actually filmed before Water For Elephants and was left on the shelf for two years, presumably waiting for the cry to go up of “why don’t we see more Guy De Maupassant on screen?”
Failing that, perhaps the cry was “do we have anything lying around that puts the boot into journalists?”, because De Maupassant’s second novel also takes potshots at a posturing press, where reporters and their proprietors use their influence to further their own interests.
Throw in a corrupt government that seeks to invade an Arab country to exploit its mineral wealth, and Bel Ami seems set to surf the zeitgeist – and yet despite the film’s expansive slowness, there’s never enough time to generate much interest, or even clarity, in these subplots.
Instead, the bulk of the attention is devoted to bodices and their removal by the scoundrel Georges Duroy (Pattinson). Yet when he arrives in 1885 Paris, even the local painted hussies are out of his price range, until he bumps into Forestier (Philip Glenister), an ex-army buddy who is now political editor for La Vie Francaise and who introduces Duroy to some of the city’s most influential figures: powerbrokers’ wives. They include Christina Ricci’s pneumatic belle époque Clotilde de Marelle, Uma Thurman’s analytical Madeleine Forestier and Kristin Scott Thomas’ under-loved Virginie Walters.
All of them are supposed to fall for the caddish sexual allure of Duroy, but although Pattinson does a lot of leering, his stilted presence feels like an old-time performance next to the more natural Ricci. At one point, when he glimpses all three women together for the first time, he pulls a face that is supposed to suggest a fox in a chicken coop, but is closer to Jim Dale accidentally locked in the nurses’ quarters in Carry On Again Doctor.
The other misjudgment is casting Scott Thomas as Virginie, whose sadness is chiefly conveyed by a bad hairdo and the nervous energy of a coffee-drinking guinea pig. Scott Thomas is a good enough actress but she can’t play dumb any more than Scarlett Johansson can play Hillary Clinton. Missing too is an adequate representation of the lack of female freedoms in the era, and much of the wit this era was supposed to be famous for.
Pattinson works his two or three gears hard and sometimes effectively as Duroy. He may not be impressive here but he’s the reason Bel Ami got a budget, a wide release and a sold-out premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival. Nor can you imagine another young star who could tackle a role like Duroy. Try to picture Daniel Radcliffe bed-hopping through French society. And now uncurl your toes.
First-time film-makers Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod have directed mostly for the London stage, and it shows in their attentiveness to character, but also in the stateliness of the film’s pace. In its next life, Bel Ami deserves to come back as one of those Taschen art books; something gorgeous to look at, but which never leaves the coffee table.
On general release from Friday