Even in the decadent setting of 19th Century Paris, at the beginning of Bel Ami, Robert Pattinson still manages to look like a dull, uncharismatic, vampire in need of a good shag. However least he somewhat heeds this advice and works his way through Paris' female social elite in the form of the ravishing Christina Ricci, voluptuous Uma Thurman and refined Kristen Scott Thomas. Which, as always, begs the question; is this one man rise to power via a steamy sexual odyssey as hot as Joann Sfar's excellent Gainsbourg or as brutally dull as David Cronenberg's A Dangerous Method? Well...it sort of meets half way...
Based on the novel, first published in 1885, by Guy de Maupassant, the film tells the tale of the bitterly down on his luck ex-soldier Georges Duroy (Pattinson) who gains a job as a journalist after a chance encounter with an old friend (Philip Glenister). By introducing him to the social elite of Paris, Duroy strikes up affairs with the aforementioned women of the tale and somehow finds himself stumbling across a media controlled conspiracy to bring down the current French government. To its credit the story is more interesting than some like minded films I've seen in the past but its let down by some bizarre casting and hammy performances.
Robert Pattinson portrayal of the petulant, egotistical, greedy Duroy was let down by some needless brooding which served him so well in those Twilight films - but not so much in this. He was rightly an unsympathetic soul with little room for redemption as the film went on. Whether he had the last laugh or not by the film's conclusion was up to the audience's imagination.
With the supporting performances of Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci the film turned into a real mixed bag. Never once was I completely sure if the story was some cheeky, satirical, examination of 19th Century Parisian society, or alternatively just a really clumsy, supposedly serious, period drama. Thurman probably fared the best in this sort of femme fatale role she adopts as the film progresses while Ricci was the naive wallflower who continuously kept running back to Georges after he repeatedly messed her about. Thomas however adopted a role I've never really seen her in before, usually the personification of calm and cool, she revealed herself to be a sexually repressed bunny boiler and perhaps had one of the stand out comedic moments in the film's closing moments, involving her funeral-like attire at a wedding.
Visually there's little wrong with the film. It even managed to shake off the cinematic cliché that the Eiffel Tower can be seen from any window in Paris. Though that was made up with the Scare Coeur appearing in the background of everywhere Pattinson's character walked, just to remind the audience we were - that's right - indeed in Paris.
A fascinating story of love, lust, greed and media controlled conspiracies is let down by some ham-fisted performances from the film's leads. Unfortunately Bel Ami is ultimately a very confused film, never really sure whether it wanted to be a darkly, serious, period drama or some dressed up excuse of satirical social commentary. Oh well, c'est la vie...
Bel Ami is in selected films throughout the UK from March 9th 2012. Belfast audiences will be able to see the film from the Queen's Film Theatre.