Bel Ami Review
Set in Paris in the 1890s, based on a story by Guy de Maupassant, and retaining its original French title, it may come as a surprise to see Bel Ami populated by an all-English speaking cast. There have been more than a few misguided attempts by Hollywood to delve into French period drama, but there are also a few noteworthy precedents to suggest that it’s not an entirely foolhardy enterprise, not least of which is the superb Dangerous Liaisons (even if the French title of Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century classic didn’t make it through untranslated). If it’s certainly not in the class of Frears’ version of Thomas Hampton’s dazzlingly clever and brilliantly played adaptation, Bel Ami (directed by Cheek by Jowl team Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod) at least bears comparison with Dangerous Liaisons in its subject matter of the sexual power games.
What Bel Ami has in its favour, or at least as its most marketable feature, is the casting of Robert Pattinson as the cruel manipulator of the delicate sensibilities and weaknesses of every member of the fairer sex that he comes into contact with. If that sounds like a piece of typecasting every bit as calculated as the casting of Monica Bellucci as “the most beautiful woman in the world” in Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, it at least equally doesn’t require any kind of stretching of the imagination or suspension of disbelief. Less cynically, while Pattinson undoubtedly has the physical attributes to make such a presence credible, (although conventional considerations of beauty proved to be no impediment to John Malkovich as the libidinous seductor Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons), the role of Georges Duroy also needs a brutish sensibility (that Malkovich has in spades), and the ability to suggest that there are human characteristics beneath the surface, and here Pattinson proves to be surprisingly capable.
As Georges Duroy, a penniless soldier recently returned to Paris after being stationed Algeria, it doesn’t take long for the young man long to realise that everyone he once knew seems to be doing exceptionally well for themselves in the booming society and colonial expansion of France during the early years of the Belle Epoque. It also doesn’t take him long to realise either that the way to advance in social circles is through striking up acquaintances with the people in power. Contrary to outward appearances however, it’s not the men that one needs to curry favour with, but their wives, and a handsome young man like Georges has no difficulties in this area. Or at least, one would think so, but when he meets and falls in love with Madeleine (Thurman), the one woman who he cannot have and one moreover who is just as adept at manipulation (a Madame de Merteuil figure), he finds that mixing love, business and politics can have disastrous consequences.
Although it seems to be dealing with a fairly clichéd situation, particularly in the nature of it really being the women behind the men who hold the reins of power, Bel Ami proves to be able to make this credible despite the social conventions of the period. Partly, that’s down to some good casting in the female roles, with Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas representing the hierarchy of conquests that need to be made for Duroy to haul himself up the social ladder, but the film’s narrative is also successful at bringing out just how the balance of power in affairs of the heart lies with the women. They are fully aware of the nature of what they want out of the relationships and, as long as everyone is playing by the same rules and operating with some degree of circumspection, there’s no reason why everyone shouldn’t benefit from the arrangements. Georges indiscretions however prove to be a threat to the social order and the unspoken rules and conventions in such matters.
If there’s any weaknesses in putting this across, it’s not through the performances, but in the characterisation and editing that the film suffers from a compression of the storyline which makes Duroy’s rise through the social ranks seem rather more rapid than it realistically would be and lacking in any more serious personal consequences. A little downtime, to make the seductions more of a challenge and to establish the balance between the respective figures in the battle for dominance would have raised the stakes considerably more. Scott Thomas’s character, for example – as the equivalent of Dangerous Liaisons’s virtuous Madame de Tourvel who forces Valmont has to exert his fullest efforts – proves to be something of a pushover here for Duroy. That’s not to say that there isn’t the same sense of dehumanisation involved in Duroy’s actions – particularly in relation to Madeleine – that comes at a personal cost, and Pattinson, in a role that is ultimately rather challenging in just how unsympathetic it can be, manages to put across the turmoil that this inner death of finer sentiments causes him very well indeed.
Where Bel Ami is rather more successful and operates on a different level to Dangerous Liaisons, is that its power games of seduction and betrayal are not merely a playground for the whims of decadent nobles, but have a clearer connection to the times, showing the nature of this corruption in social and moral matters inevitably extends through to a dehumanisation on the rather more serious level when it comes to war and political conquests. One can look at Duroy’s romantic activities here in Bel Ami and consider him something of a cad when it comes to the series of affairs with the wives of his colleagues, but the film has the strength to see the story through to a much darker conclusion where the relatively painful sentiments caused in his relationships with women are nothing compared to the havoc this monster is about to unleash on the rest of the world. And yet, you still can’t help but feel sorry for him.