By Jessica Kiang | The Playlist February 17, 2012 at 11:00AM
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)?
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.
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.
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+]