Bel Ami is the attempt to tell a rags-to-riches tale of a man who rises to the top through the careful manipulation of others and a passion for women that made him irresistible to them. For a film to be about passion it must have passion itself, which turns out to be one of the key ingredients missing from this adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel, where emotion sadly takes a backseat to the rest of the story.
Taking place in Paris in 1890, the film follows Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson), who starts off with barely any money to his name. One night, he comes across an old army friend of his, Charles (Philip Glenister), who generously invites him to dinner and eventually offers him a job at a newspaper writing about his days in the army. Meanwhile, Georges begins writing with the help of Charles’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), and starts having a relationship with Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), a woman he met at the dinner.
Not content with his current station, Georges takes it upon himself to seduce and marry Madeleine after Charles passes away, all the while continuing his relationship with Clotilde. As if juggling two women weren’t enough, he also decides to have an affair with the wife, Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), of the owner of the newspaper, Rousette (Colm Meaney). With one wife and two mistresses to keep track of, Georges finds it increasingly difficult to keep one from the others as well as trying to keep the sting of jealousy from himself when he suspects that his wife may not be as faithful as he thought.
To get right to the heart of the problem, you don’t really need to look much further than Robert Pattinson, who’s not exactly one who is known for showing any kind of emotion with his stone-faced expression. We’re supposed to believe that he is able to sweep all of these women off of their feet, but with a complete lack of passion, it ends up feeling incredibly forced and unbelievable.
Just like with Kristen Stewart and her recent Snow White and the Huntsman, the Twilight series is all the proof that any filmmaker should have needed to see that Pattinson is just not an actor, and yet, he is continually placed in lead roles despite not having the skills necessary to portray them. With their vampire series coming to an end, these just feel like desperate attempts to keep them relevant, but unless they suddenly learn to act, they won’t be for long.
Aside from the lead performance, there’s also the problem of the story being pretty bland. It’s supposed to be an interesting tale of a man rising to power who starts off with practically nothing, but apparently all it takes is knowing the right person and then sleeping with multiple women, a scenario which is not going to make for the most compelling of films, especially when you feel nothing for the main character.
As mentioned earlier, the film itself is also rather lacking in passion, particularly because this adaptation by first-time feature film writer Rachel Bennette just doesn’t allow much time for it. It didn’t seem to take very long at all for Georges to get in bed with all three of these women, so we’re left with sudden affairs and relationships that don’t really have much emotion behind them. In a sense, I was reminded of Madonna’s recent W.E., another film that lacked the necessary emotion to tell its story, an ingredient that is desperately needed if the audience is to feel anything for the characters, whether it’s a king and his girlfriend, or a man trying to raise his station.
Overall, Bel Ami ends up being a film that feels cold and distant because of the stale lead and a story that makes no room for the affection between any of the couples. To top it off, it fizzles out to a rather random ending that doesn’t even try to make much sense. This is a film that could have worked, but when so many elements are missing or done incorrectly, there’s little hope for it to succeed.