Bel Ami

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Bel Ami
"This is a fantastic chance to see some of the industry's greatest talents at the top of their game."

For Guy de Maupassant's classic novel, there couldn't be a more timely point at which to arrive on the big screen. With its themes of political and journalistic corruption and the prospect of an unpopular foreign war, it's as relevant now as it ever was, and in many ways it functions as a picture of transition between the oft-romanticised 18th century and the brutal modern age.

For many, of course, the main reason to see this will be star Robert Pattinson. He certainly doesn't disappoint, but largely because he knows how to play an unlikeable character well, and it's anyone's guess how fans will react to that. He's often shirtless, of course, because all young Georges - the bel ami of the title - has to sell when he arrives in Paris is his body. But Georges isn't looking to scrape a living on the streets. The other thing he possesses is ambition. By seducing rich women, he fancies he might find a means of manipulating rich men and climbing up the social ladder.

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It's a popular conceit, and Georges is completely, hopelessly wrong - wide open to being taken advantage of by women far more sophisticated than he is - but it's how he comes to recognise this, and adapt, despite his limited intelligence and lack of any real talent, that makes up the meat of the film. Because Pattinson isn't afraid to play weakness, mediocrity or petty spite, he is perfect in the role, less romantic hero than would-be Bullingdon boy. His ability to keep the audience interested in his fate despite this illustrates real talent.

Then there are the women. Cast against type, they are scarcely recognisable. There's Christina Ricci as the playful, smitten Clothilde; Kristen Scott Thomas as fragile older woman Virginie; and Uma Thurman as the formidable Madeleine. One cannot help but recall her vulnerable Cecile in Dangerous Liaisons; here she is all grown up, no less desirable, but with much more in common with Laclos' Marguise de Meurteuil. Each woman gives it her all, seemingly relishing the chance to do something different. Wages for this film were apparently low - everyone was doing it for love, and it shows. This is a fantastic chance to see some of the industry's greatest talents at the top of their game.

There's a lot of story to the original Bel Ami and, of necessity, it has been trimmed down here. The result is easier to follow but there are places where it doesn't quite make the jump successfully, forcing the actors to go through emotional shifts that seem too rushed to be convincing. It's also difficult, in this timeframe, to communicate successfully the particular social pressures - especially with regard to class - that limit Georges' options and contribute to shaping his fate. Yet the core of the story, its themes and atmosphere are effectively preserved and Maupassant's own self-written epitaph - "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing" - echoes through what becomes, despite Georges' superficial success, a cautionary tale.

Where it stumbles, Bel Ami is swept along by a ravishing score from Lakshman Joseph De Saram and Rachel Portman. Stefano Falivene's cinematography gives depth and colour to this historic Paris (actually Budapest), with a lush variety of interiors from the grim squalor of Georges' first home to the smoke-filled, wood panelled offices of the newspaper where he finds employment and the elegant drawing rooms of the well-to-do. The costuming is also superb and well suited to the individual characters, not just getting by on being beautiful. All in all, it's a treat for fans of historical romance and a film with plenty of important, if unpleasant, things to say.

Reviewed on: 23 Feb 2012
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Bel Ami packshot
An ambitious young man seeks to attain power in 1890s Paris by seducing and manipulating the bored wives of important men.
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Director: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod

Writer: Rachel Bennette, based on the book by Guy de Maupassant.

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Colm Meaney, Holliday Grainger, Natalia Tena

Year: 2012

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, France, Italy

Festivals:

Glasgow 2012
BIFF 2012

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If you like this, try:

Dangerous Liaisons