‘Must see’ movie - Bel Ami

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. And, oh yes, did we mention the man is played by Robert Pattinson, the teenage heart-throb of ‘Twilight’ fame?

It 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 ardour of his vocal fan base (probably impossible)?

Bel Ami is a sumptuous transposition to the screen (by no means the first) of Guy de Maupassant’s fin de siecle Parisian novel starring Pattinson as Georges Duroy, the dissolute French soldier who believes

he can rise to the top of society and journalism by the simple expedient of sleeping with the wives of his employers

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

His three married lovers are played by Uma Thurman, sly, slinky and smouldering as the political editor’s wife, who writes Georges’ articles for him; Kristin Scott Thomas, giving a brilliant performance of vulnerability thawing into hysterical abandon as the editor’s wife, whom he seduces in church and viciously rejects partly in order to marry her daughter; and Christina Ricci, foxy and flirtatious as the deeply attractive Clotilde, whom he loves above all the others, and whose pert little daughter dubs him “bel ami.”

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’s an epic journey, or rather it should be, the voyage into his dark heart, but the feeling that everyone is play-acting means it never really has the weight or heft needed by the narrative

It’s a deeply sour tale of having your cake and eating it, and it’s beautifully played and sumptuously costumed. And you can’t fail to notice in these rocky days for newspaper ethics, that Georges moves sideways from his diary of a cavalryman in the Algerian war to head of gossip on the broadsheet; he draws a line, though, at taking his share of the profits when war-mongering becomes a sort of insider trading

Debutant directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod ran a five-week rehearsal period before they even got on the studio floor, and it shows. The music swells, but not all the time; you can hear the actors breathe, the long dresses rustle, the symbolic cockroach scuttle across Georges’ attic before he pummels it to death

As a debut movie, and made for the comparative pittance of nine million euros, it’s almost indecently good and highly accomplished. And although Pattinson twitches his nostrils a little too often, he’s spot on as the louche lothario

The set-piece scenes, too, in low taverns and high society, are a vigorous swirl of colour and choreography, studded with sharp performances all round. Nice to see little nuggety vignettes from Timothy Walker as a lawyer and Christopher Fulford as a police officer

There’s a magnificent deathbed scene when Georges goes to comfort Uma Thurman’s almost-widow as Philip Glenister coughs up his last on the coast at Cannes. And the interiors and location shots (Budapest stands in for Paris) are a continual delight

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, 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

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

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March 14, 2012

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