Robert Pattinson has made some daring artistic choices apart from his most famous, pasty-faced role; too bad so many of those fillms have been clunkers.
He played the young Salvador Dali in Little Ashes, a pre-Twilight film so badly written it left open the question of whether Pattinson could really act. He played the doomed young lover in the icky, maudlin Remember Me (2010), which grafts a contemporary Romeo and Juliet plot onto a 9-11 drama; not his most inspired choice, but at least he was reaching for something serious again. And if Reese Witherspoon and circus animals couldn’t save the snoozefest that was Water for Elephants, you can’t hold Pattinson responsible for that one either.
So we’re still wondering if he can act in strong sunlight and -- uh-oh -- along comes Bel Ami, a predictably pretty, unexpectedly moribund drama.
In this 19th-century costume romance, based on a Guy de Maupassant story, Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, a social climbing young man totally without talent except for his good looks. He’s a natural-born gigolo, just back from war, who weasels his way into the dining rooms and then boudoirs of some of Parisian society’s most desirable married women, played by a starry cast.
They include Uma Thurman as Madeleine, the wealthy, powerful wife of a newspaper editor who hires Georges. Madeleine dictates George’s articles and makes him look much smarter than he is (not so hard to do). She also prods him into a serious fling with her best friend, Clothilde (Christina Ricci). And he pursues then dumps the proper but secretly passionate Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Here is a story about lust, infidelity, jealousy, manipulation, about sex as commodity and weapon. Done right, it should suggest the dark, thrilling tones of Dangerous Liaisons. But Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod co-direct with a stateliness that totally negates the film’s messy, sexy theme. Even the bedroom scenes feel like they were shot in the decorative arts galleries of the Louvre, with museum guards off camera making sure the situation stays calm.
And I hate to say this, but Pattison is just as robotic and vapid as the direction. Georges' humiliating rejection of Virginie almost makes him a real character – mean-spirited, cruel and petty, but with a believable spark. But that comes far too late to save the film.
Pattinson’s fault? Not entirely, of course. But the answer to the “Can he really act?” question is not looking hopeful for him. Word out of Cannes about his next film, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, isn’t encouraging. Good thing he’ll always have fangs to fall back on.
Bel Ami is on VOD now and in theaters on Friday. Here's the trailer, which makes the film look much livelier than it is.