It probably requires a teenage girl to understand the attractions of Robert Pattinson, and here I’m deficient in empathy. Having missed out on all those romantic vampire flicks I must be lacking a crucial point of comparison, for on first impressions this young Adonis’s acting style consists of several variations on the theme of the smug bastard who thinks he’s God’s gift to women. We’ve all seen these characters but it doesn’t make Pattinson’s performance any more engaging. Even real life smug bastards are no better than ham actors.
As far as I can remember the original story, this new version of Bel Ami sticks fairly closely to Guy de Maupassant’s novel about a rascally journalist who advances his career through the strategic seductions of other men’s wives. Set in the glittering Paris of the Belle Époque, this is one of those films designed to tap into our sentimental preconceptions of this dazzling era.
For any director such a backdrop is is an invitation for maximum colour and melodrama. It requires a strong script and some thoughtful actors to withstand the temptation to lay it on with a trowel. In their debut feature, co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Omerod make a vague effort to resist the descent into schmaltz, but end up disappearing below the surface.
We can attribute the best lines of the film to Maupassant, and even they sound rather stilted in the mouths of the actors. Much of the dialogue is as prosaic as a quickly produced tele-movie.
Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, a handsome young man recently discharged from the army, who is invited home for dinner by Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), an old comrade, now working as editor of a crusading newspaper. Georges is asked to write a story about his experiences in Algeria, but it is eventually written by Forestier’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), an intellectual lady who advises the neophyte that to advance his career he must not try to ingratiate himself with influential men, but with their spouses.
That’s all the excuse Georges needs to get into the sack with Clotilde (Christina Ricci), and Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas); one satisfying his lusts and material needs, the other boosting his career prospects. When Charles expires from consumption Georges marries Madame Forestier, not simply for her money but because he needs her to dream up his articles.
That’s about it really. Georges is a cad who exercises an amazing sexual power over women. There is little to indicate any other form of charm, as he often comes across as a dope and an oaf. All he has to do is look smug and they go sweaty. His cynical attitude is explained by his peasant background, which has given him a dread of life on the farm, and a commensurate appetite for gilded boudoirs.
Any real journalist could only laugh at Georges’s attempts to master a profession that requires both grind and talent. He gives the impression he couldn’t make the grade as a journalist even if he snuggled up to Wendi Deng.
I’ve always pictured Georges as Alain Delon with a cruel moustache. Pattinson seems too young and callow for the part, which was played in a 1947 version by the terminally suave George Sanders. Even though the entire film seems to have been concocted as a vehicle for a rising box office sensation Pattinson reputedly took a pay cut to secure the role, so eager was he to escape the Count Dracula routine. His preparation was extraordinarily comprehensive: he actually read the book.
It is no easy task to turn a very good novel into an equally good film. With Maupassant’s prose the level of detail in the descriptions, and the psychological complexity of the personalities, draws us deeply into the story. In Donnellan and Omerod’s adaptation the characters barely get beyond the level of cardboard cutouts.
Smart directors know that many of the greatest films have been based on short stories or pulp novels rather than literary classics. Think of Hitchcock’s movies, or the excellent features that French directors such as Claude Chabrol have made from the slender psychological thrillers of Georges Simenon.
To take on a big, complex, famous novel one has to do something bold in cinematic terms rather than rely on simply retelling the story. There are outstanding examples of film-as-novel, such as Jean de Florette, but it requires a level of confidence that is missing from this debut performance.
When the script is not good enough everything else tends to drag because even the best actors can’t turn lead into gold. The music is cranked up to compensate for the lack of real drama, and the attempts at symbolism become heavy-handed. Georges is compared, on more than one occasion, to a cockroach. It might have been better to put him astride a show pony.
Bel Ami – UK, France, Italy, rated M, 102 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, May 26, 2012