Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci star in this adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel about a social climber in belle époque Paris who uses women to elevate his station.
BERLIN – There are countless brooding shots of Robert Pattinson in Bel Ami, occasionally shirtless and invariably drenched in overwrought music. That might titillate the swooning legions of Team Edward Twilight fans, but for the grownups, there’s not much here to bite into. Neophyte film directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, with help from Rachel Bennette’s shallow screenplay, have reduced Guy de Maupassant’s portrait of corrupting ambition to a risible bodice-ripper.
Published in 1885, when Maupassant was slowly succumbing to syphilis, the novel centers on Georges Duroy, a handsome young social climber from the provinces, fresh out of the cavalry in Algeria and hungry to make his fortune in belle époque Paris. Broke and blessed with no discernible talents, he quickly learns that the path to power is not through important men but their influential wives.
We get Georges’ number in early glimpses of Pattinson glowering at the shabby walls of his cramped apartment or enviously watching the Paris swells. He’s at his most expressive when clobbering a cockroach to death. But there’s no inner life in the miscast actor’s one-dimensional characterization. He lacks the fundamental guile for the role, played in one of the best-known previous versions (1947’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami) by the inimitably supercilious George Sanders.
When Georges shows his true colors, one of his key stepping stones, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), says, “I had no conception of the depths of your emptiness.” As so often happens in Bennette’s adaptation, she’s stating the obvious. The assessment is aimed at the venal character but applies equally to the charisma-free performance, in which there’s nobody home.
That’s a big problem when we are expected to buy the beguiling magnetism and virility of this dullard, who is short on conversation skills, social graces and virility but leaves every woman he meets spellbound.