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)?
Pattinson hasn't yet gained the confidence on camera to do less; 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 30 feet high. It's one of the reasons why we can never forget in this film that Pattinson is Acting.
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 theater 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.
Not all issues can be laid solely at Pattinson's door. 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 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). And that's not to mention the metatextual feel, compounded by all the mirrors he looks in, of having Robert Pattinson 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, 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 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.
All that said, the film never lost our attention and while 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 I write these words, there's 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+]
"Bel Ami" is now available via VOD and opens in limited release theatrically this Friday.