Written in 1885, Bel Ami is the story of a poor former military officer’s rise in fortune in Paris through the seduction of a seduction of a number of powerful women.
The casting of Robert Pattinson in the lead role of Georges Duroy has meant the film has been widely anticipated, especially among fans of Twilight.
However, the hugely enjoyable, bracing period drama will appeal to a wider audience beyond that, its examination of the sexual politics of a past society – at times almost a gleeful romp – reminiscent of Dangerous Liasons.
Bel Ami marks the directorial debuts on the big screen of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, who have been highly successful in the theatre world as co-founders of the Cheek by Jowl theatre company
Talking to us after the movie had screened at the Glasgow Film Festival, Declan told us: “We chose it because it’s very much about how we are now.
“It’s about a young man with very few talents who manages to seduce his way to the top of society. It’s a triumph of mediocrity very much through celebrity culture.
“It’s also about a corrupt media, a government that pretends to invade a Muslim country for the good of the people – but is in fact secretly after their mineral wealth, so clearly it has nothing to do with the current situation at all.”
Nick added: “Ironically we were thinking of doing it for the stage, and then a producer came along with an early draft. He said ‘have a look at this’, and we did, and we grabbed it with both hands.”
For their theatre work Nick operates as the designer, while Declan directs. But for film they decided to take a different approach, co-directing together.
Nick said: “It seemed to us that the skills worked really well in film. We thought ‘how is it possible for one man or one woman to do this job?’ – because it’s so complex, there are so many demands, and our skills seemed to divide completely naturally into two areas of filmmaking.
“Of course you need absolute trust, and complicity, if you like – which we have, because we’ve worked together now for 35 years.”
Declan added: “Basically it worked out that Nick looked after the camera and the shot, and I’d look after the actors, and then later we’d collaborate on moving the actors within the shot.
“All I know is that we live together, we’d get in the same car in the morning, we’d be driven to the set at six o’clock. I’d go out one door, Nick would go out another. Immediately he’d get 50 questions, I’d get 50 questions, and we’d reconvene at lunchtime and just over the shot.
“We did have a 35-year warm-up, so I don’t recommend you to do it at home – I suspect a gunshot wedding wouldn’t be a great idea for your film debut. But for us it was.”
Though working closely together, Nick and Declan said there was no fall-out, and indeed – given that the movie was produced on a relatively low-budget – the cast and crew pulled together as they’d believed in the story.
On the cast, Nick said: “Rob came very early on. He read the script and absolutely loved it, and really related to the character.
“We met him, and that was like a marriage immediately. He has always been wonderfully committed, and is a terrifically serious actor.”
Declan added: “Very interestingly, he insisted on rehearsing for a whole month in London before we shot one single piece of film, which is very, very unusual for somebody who has as busy a schedule as he has.
“He was incredibly committed, and couldn’t have been a nicer guy or a more talented guy to work with.”
Nick also said of the Twilight star’s involvement: “I think the reason that Rob was attracted to this role is that it’s the complete opposite of everything that he’s played so far.
“The character of Bel Ami is talentless, vacuous and really totally selfish. Rob is very talented, but he completely understood the part, completely understood the character.”
“At the risk of sounding po-faced or pretentious, all artists will grapple – I do – with insecurity about your own talent,” Declan explained. “It’s a very dodgy artist indeed who says ‘I know exactly what I’m doing; I’m a genius, I’m talented’. Nobody I know who does good work thinks like that at all.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why this character is so fascinating to us, really, because he gets to the top with nothing, and it’s very much a parable for our time.”
Of the story’s relevance for our time, Declan said: “I think it’s surprisingly modern, but I have to say that’s what we’ve always done – we’ve always taken… We both think classics are pieces of work that are about now, not about then.
“We didn’t do the movie because of how we thought people were in 1885, we were interested in 1885 shedding light on – not so much on politics now, though partially that – but also just how we still are.
“It’s interesting to see these very powerful actresses – Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas – play these women who are very powerful in their society, albeit they have to work through men.
“It’s interesting seeing each of them really undo themselves for sex in a way that we’re used to seeing men doing in our public life. These women risk a lot and in different ways ruin themselves because of their attraction to this guy.”
Bel Ami is released in UK cinemas on March 9th