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Berlinale 2012 Review: 'Bel Ami' Starring Robert Pattinson Fails To Seduce

Reviews
by Jessica Kiang
February 17, 2012 11:00 AM
21 Comments
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Bel Ami Robert Pattinson Christina Ricci

From behind, we watch a man in ragged clothes look longingly through the window of a fancy Belle Epoque Parisian restaurant. Inside, richly attired women whisper secrets over brimful glasses of champagne and decadent platters laden with food. Later, the hungry man in his mean garret relives the moment, jealousy and bitterness at the injustice of his situation playing across his face, before the memory of such opulence actually makes him cry. It's a convincing, well-observed moment that sets up a lot of what we need to know about the man's character. Oh wait, did we mention the man is played by Robert Pattinson?

"Bel Ami," Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod's adaptation of the acerbic Guy de Maupassant novel, features a starry cast in some wonderful costuming, and follows the fortunes of ambitious Georges Duroy (Pattinson) as he ruthlessly climbs his way up the social ladder of 1890s Paris, using little but his talents at seduction. It quite speaks to the level of stardom the "Twilight" films have brought the young actor that, in amongst a cast that features Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott-Thomas, really the burning question is: What is Pattinson like? Will he convert his detractors (unlikely) or cool the ardor of his vocal fan base (probably impossible)?

Robert Pattinson Bel Ami

The truth is, sadly, that the promising opening detailed above is the high point of the film from the point of view of Pattinson's performance. He is not terrible by any means, and we were really trying to like him in the role for a long time, but eventually his twitchiness, which seems like a factor of inexperience and nervousness, unites with script and characterisation problems to alienate us from his role in a way that has nothing to do with the character's nastiness. It is as though Pattinson hasn't yet gained the confidence on camera to do less, and so in his many closeups there is always one too many things going on -- the nostril flare coupled with the eye twitch along with the twist of the mouth becomes an overwhelming cavalcade of tics when your face is thirty feet high. It's one of the reasons why we can never forget in this film that Pattinson is Acting; he feels like he is wearing the character like a suit of clothes or a layer of makeup, rather than inhabiting him. Yes, we're going home to find a horse's head in our bed tonight, aren't we? But while he is not there yet, we have to say that there's no reason that Pattinson, in the hands of a director more experienced with the demands of film than theater (the debut directors here have a background in theatre and perhaps have not quite appreciated just how much the movie camera acts as a performance magnifying glass), shouldn't turn in a better, more understated performance. After all, in the one "Twilight" film this writer has seen to date, we seem to recall he does a lot less, and he has been accused of woodenness before. If he just splits the difference between that and this...

Ok, phew, so now that that's put of the way we can talk about the rest of the film, and from this perspective it's clear that not all issues we outline above can be laid solely at Pattinson's door. In fact, when you see even the stalwart uber-reliable Kristin Scott-Thomas devolve from her usual committed and natural-as-breathing style into something far more histrionic and, well, bigger, you realize that there are problems built into the screenplay and the directorial approach. Uma Thurman, too, seems to go large and scattily theatrical through discomfort; there is a very modern-feeling neurotic edge to Thurman as an actress that does not suit the coolly intelligent character she plays. Of the women, Christina Ricci really does the most convincing work: her Clothilde feels entirely real and yet also entirely of her time, and she seems wholly invested in her role as maybe the one woman who both loves and understands what Georges is.

Bel Ami Trailer

As for the wider story, the film is lousy with contemporary relevance both political and cultural. French imperialist expansion into Morocco forms a central subplot, as does the political corruption it engenders, and even the journalistic integrity it tests (indeed, a throwaway quip about copy deadlines drew knowing laughter from journalists who would in a few short minutes be stampeding over each other to coveted computer spots in the press room, the sooner to file reviews like this one). And that's not to mention the metatextual feel, compounded by all the mirrors he looks in, of having Robert Pattinson, one of the most consistently drooled-over stars of recent years, play a serial seducer of women (and who, as the anti-R-Patz brigade will no doubt point out, is all but devoid of other talents). These parallels, in not being too explicitly spelled out, are among the more satisfying aspects of the film, and it seems they benefit from not having the full focus of anyone's attention.

Because of course, that attention is on the central characters and their interrelations. Duroy is a mixture of ambition and laziness, he has no appetite for the writing job he lands, but he has no aptitude for it either. He wants a short cut to social stability, wealth and respect, and finds it through exploiting what turns out to be his real talent: seduction. But as woman after woman falls prey to his predatory, self-interested charms, Georges becomes crueller and colder, evoking Dorian Gray in the progressive blackening of his soul even as his exterior continues to attract and charm. It is an epic journey, or rather it should be, the voyage into his dark heart, but the feeling that everyone is play-acting means it never really has the weight or heft needed by the narrative. Or indeed by Rachel Portman's score, which, while no doubt compositionally strong in its own right, sometimes works so hard to sell the grand swoop of the story that the disconnect between it and the character beats it punctuates becomes almost funny.

Bel Ami Robert Pattinson

The third of three big-name corset dramas to have graced screens here in Berlin, quality-wise "Bel Ami" lies somewhere between the other two ("A Royal Affair" and "Farewell, My Queen"). Too many of the characters lose their psychology at one point or another, acting oddly (often with sudden fury or brooding bitterness) to a circumstance we don't believe would have provoked such a reaction. The passage of time is rather erratically concertina'd: we're not sure how long one state exists before a new one replaces it. And there are a few truly ill-judged moments, like the horribly cheesy "everything is great now!" montage early on when Georges first gets together with Clothilde. All that said, the film never lost our attention and even having significant problems with it, we found ourselves willing it along. And, at the risk of damning with faint praise, the sets, costumes, hairdos -- all the trappings -- are pretty glorious too.

As we write these words, we can hear screaming outside. It presumably means that the press conference has finished and Pattinson is about to emerge, to walk the four yards from door to car. We honestly feel for the man and the strange world of fainting teenagers he inhabits. If his performance here is mannered and nervy, he should at least be commended on choosing such an unlikable role, when presumably straight-up romantic leads are piling up in drifts around his door. Maybe in the hands of a strong, visionary director (roll on Cronenberg's "Cosmopolis") he can outgrow Edward Cullen, and become the actor he wants to be. "Bel Ami" marks an early, faltering step on that path for him, and a mildly diverting "Dangerous Liaisons"-lite for the rest of us. [C+]

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21 Comments

  • Richsgal91 | May 12, 2012 12:56 AMReply

    I just saw the whole movie Bel Ami. You can rent it on Demand through Bright House for $9.99.

    I haven't read an interview about the movie because the MEDI is unfair with alot of things they wish for us to believe. Lies are easier to tell and sell for the MEDI.

    The movie was great and if it wasn't for Robert Pattinson playing in the movie; I wouldn't of wasted my time or money.

    Robert Pattinson has asked the MEDI and his fans; that he not be always remembered for playing a vampire in the Twight series. He is a great actor no matter what movie he plays in. He is down to earth and as real as you or I. Support him with positive feedback and love him for who he is.

    We all grow up and Rob has long ago out grew Edward Cullen! Allow him to show us all what a great and awesome actor he truly is.

  • Shirl ross | May 11, 2012 11:31 PMReply

    Robert Pattison was great He outdid all the ladies and was very sexy and alluring on a classy way

  • Amelie | February 28, 2012 1:02 PMReply

    Quite possibly, Bel Ami had a good to poor script, and inexperienced directors. I usually go to see movies on a big screen, and then watch the DVD several times at home. I can assure you, you will
    observe more and more details, and appreciate the actors' performances a lot more afterwards. Anyway, one actor cannot be held responsible for the whole production; movies are a huge group
    endeavor. Even with all the drawbacks, I bet he is still good in Bel Ami. Rob Pattinson was great in Water for Elephants and Remember Me. He is already a beloved performer and should be commended for stretching and taking a chance. He will get better with time, just like most people do with their craft. On a side note, how many actors' have had hit after hit? Maybe George Clooney, Gary Oldman, Ryan Gosling. Their movies received critical acclaim, but not all made a lot of money. Sean Penn is considered an actors' "actor" and he had some flops, too.

  • KATE | February 19, 2012 11:55 PMReply

    I am referring to the comment made by NONONO.

  • Kate | February 19, 2012 11:53 PMReply

    EXCUSE ME!!! Here sits a middle-aged woman, married with children and a very successful attorney in a very prestigious law firm. I was not fond of the writing style of Ms. Meyer but definitely got caught up in the genre of the story. 90% of the woman who also practice in my law firm agree that it was the storyline, not the writing ability of the author, that had us all "swooning". The movies were all right, saved only by the acting ability and chemistry between Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. But I digress. This review was supposed to apply ONLY to the movie Bel Ami and the cast. I read the book both in French and English (definitely lost some of the details in translation). I've seen 12 minutes of trailers and in my opinion, not one of those tics on which the reviewer dwelled, were apparent. Focusing on only those facial "tics", it would appear that the reviewer took in only the facial expressions of Mr. Pattinson rather than the movie itself! Mr. Pattinson grasped the essence of the character perfectly and evoked the described emotions as written. I am so sick of reading Pattinson reviews that always fall back on the "Twilight" actor. He has moved on, already showing a great acting range in his chosen film projects. It will absolutely astound me if I read one review that does not mention Twilight. For god's sake, critics, take a refresher course on evaluative writing and show some intelligence in your writing critiques!

  • Caroline | February 22, 2012 2:06 PM

    First I apologize for my poor english (i'm french). I saw Bel Ami in Berlin and all charaters are great! The directors took the risk to be so true to Guy de Maupassant an have choosen the best cast ever for this story. Barely all negativ critic you read, you can recognize each character of the book, for example: Kristin Scott Thomas ist ridiculous - a wrong cast choose, do you remember Mme Walter in the book? So you know she plays perfect. o:) Perhaps "some" should read the book first to understand...you will hate Rob after this film because he is just Georges Duroy!

  • f.c. | February 20, 2012 6:14 AM

    You've only seen 12 minutes of trailers. Stop talking.

  • gabi | February 19, 2012 10:21 AMReply

    now would it bother you to talk about the Movie...did it do justice to the Book....I watched the Trailer and I'm stunned how this young Man calculates his Moves..ruthless and cunning....I felt that the facial expression Of Mr. Pattinson are obvious ...if you read the Book , this is exactly how George was...his attempt to vow Kristen at church and after he got that kiss, the silent triumph he displayed with that smirk..or after he bought the flowers and pushes her away but when he sees an opportunity ( right after she tell him about her husbands plans) you can see how he changes his demeanour, turning around..I "

  • RobstenNation | February 19, 2012 7:21 AMReply

    How dare you question and critisize our Acting God Robert Pattinson?
    He is better then Brando and Dean.
    He dates the straightest woman on this planet and the beautifulest of all Miss Kristen Stewart.
    You are just a jealous hater who knows he'd never leave his Bella who taught him the acting.

  • thaly | February 19, 2012 4:36 AMReply

    They only hate Robert Pattinson´s films because can´t forgive his success. It´s ridiculous how people can show their negative sides in a review like this. They seem more interested in his love life or twilight instead of doing a fair review about Bel Ami.

    Get over it. He is a young actor, he has everything some of this "critics" would love to have, that´s why they continue with this crap. Sorry, but he has more credibility to me than you, you love some other people that has NO talent, but are willing to kiss your asses. It is so predictable, you´re trying to destroy Rob´s career. it´ll be more difficult for him than for anyone else.

    Shame some people can´t sttand somebody else success. What a life. We need to support each other.

  • madeleine | February 18, 2012 9:23 PMReply

    iam not a critic....but it was done 2 years.ago..i would love to see robert redo the 30s comedy THE THIN MAN with kristen stewart as his wife.

  • VAL | February 18, 2012 8:02 PMReply

    There is something called over detailed....this review is borderline obsessional! Everyone (especially pretentious movie reviewers) need to get over their weird obsession with picking apart everything this young actor does (and I mean EVERYTHING)! Its just odd. And like others have said many other actors in different roles never receive such treatment for much worse actions. We get it Rob Pattinson was Edward Cullen and you hate Twilight...now get the hell over it!

  • jenna | February 18, 2012 8:01 PMReply

    I think it is hilarious that all this reviewer wants to talk about is Robert Pattinson!! Secret crush maybe??

  • lola | February 18, 2012 9:44 AMReply

    ew -- that first paragraph reads like an undergrad film studies write-up. like i'd tell my students: TRY HARDER.

  • xxx | February 17, 2012 6:49 PMReply

    to point out every expression , every Move of Rob is just lame...no actor is ridiculed like Rob...when Johnny makes his stupid Face or a Channing looks like he has no Idea where he is and what to do, or even Leo in Titanic and Gosling who has no range , just his cool collected smirk ( from CSL to IoM and even Drive) he isn' criticized like that..so you know what ..u said what you thought you have to say now please get a real Job, because its becoming like an addiction for you guys to rip Pattinson ...for a young actor he did a great Job as far as I can see from the trailer..and do keep in mind that this Movie was done over 2 years ago..so your description isn't valid anymore..

  • xxx | February 18, 2012 8:49 AM

    to YYY... Honestly I would like seeing Rob in Blue Valentine..or Drive...I think he would do a great Job. Please do keep in Mind the Age Difference ..Rob was 22 making that Movie.. It gets on my nerves when an actor is being pulled apart like Mr. Pattinson. Come on thats just insane. If he doesn't lift his Eyebrow the right way , it will be mentioned. You have to admit that nobody ever got this kind of Treatment. I'm sorry that I offended Goose but especially in Drive ..I had a hard time watching him with that stupid Toothpick and the " collected" stare....I wanted to punch his face because I wanted to feel why he fell in Love with Cary to go that length in helping her husband..

  • YYY | February 17, 2012 11:15 PM

    Oh eff off with Gosling has no range. Like Pattinson could do Blue Valentine, Drive or Half Nelson. Please. Just because the reviewer isn't rubbing his clit over Robert "Twilight" Pattinson doesn't mean you have to shit all over another, different actor.

  • Kanerwa | February 17, 2012 5:43 PMReply

    @Nonono,honestly,you are such full of hate towards people that like some actor's acting.What will be your next subject of analyze?Nationality?Religion?Colour of the skin?Will you write something like that about male fan base of comics adaptation?

  • Kate | February 17, 2012 3:27 PMReply

    If you really did research about Robert Pattinson, you'd find that his fan base is not entirely teenage girls. He has legions of "women" in his fan base. Just check out any online fan site. The majority of his online fans are actually mature "women".

  • Val | February 18, 2012 7:57 PM

    There is something called over detailed....this review is borderline obsessional! Obsessional isnt keeping it real as you say, its keeping it creepy!! Everyone (especially pretentious movie reviewers) need to get over their weird obsession with picking apart everything this young actor does (and I mean EVERYTHING)! Its just odd. And like others have said many other actors in different roles never receive such treatment. We get it Rob Pattinson was Edward Cullen and you hate Twilight...now get the hell over it!

  • nonono | February 17, 2012 4:14 PM

    Mature uneducated fat puritan no life hopeless housewives.

    As much as I like Rob, he can't act for shit.

    Very good detailed review. Keep it real.

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