Monday, 14 May 2012
FILM REVIEW: BEL AMI
There is a scene early on in Bel Ami, Rachel Bennette's adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's classic novel (directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod), where anti-hero, Georges Duroy, sits opposite three attentive, wealthy women and returns their smiles with a grin resembling that of a fox who has just been invited to dine in a hen house.
Georges (Robert Pattinson) is, in fact, a wolf who hungers after money and influence in 1890s Paris. An ex-soldier of poor means, he's devised the best way to achieve his goals is through the wives of the powerful men. To paraphrase Edward Albee's Who Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the best way to a man's heart is through his wife's stomach.
Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci) is the first chickadee to succumb to Georges' charms. Setting up a love nest for the two and lavishing the handsome young man with gifts, it is Clotilde's young daughter who dubs Georges 'Bel Ami' (fine friend), a name which soon catches on, teasingly among the women of Parisian high society, and disdainfully amongst the menfolk.
But when opportunity presents itself, Georges carelessly abandons Clotilde and marries the second of those women, the newly-widowed Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman). A woman with a fierce intellect and an independent spirit, Madeleine's not about to relinquish control -- of her ideals, or her finances -- to her younger husband.
And when all else fails in his efforts to remain in the inner circle of the politically-minded newspaper, La Vie Francaise, he works for (in the loosest sense of the word), Georges sets about seducing Virginie Rousset (Kristen Scott Thomas), the wife of the newspaper's editor (Colm Meaney).
It was at Madame Rousset's suggestion that Georges kept his position with the newspaper when it was revealed he wasn't much chop as a writer, and the long-neglected wife reacts to the cad's affections like a lovesick schoolgirl. Of course, her attitude changes dramatically when Georges attentions turn elsewhere (yet closer to home).
All three women are wonderful in their roles. Ricci and Thurman, who seem rarely to appear on screen these days, represent two types of women operating completely differently within their social sphere, while Scott Thomas, always a welcome presence in any film, manages to be both comic and pitiable (she could also have performed the role in French; everyone speaks with English accents despite their being Parisians).
Bel Ami is a perfectly solid period drama which is perhaps less scandalous and political than when de Maupassant's novel was first published but is no less enjoyable for that. Indeed there are parallels with modern times -- Western interference in the Middle East; adoration and success for the talentless -- which will amuse but also, sadly, prove de Maupassant's concerns no less relevant today.
And as testament to de Maupassant's writing, the film doesn't allow the production design to do all the work: it's the characters and not the costumes which keep us engaged. On the other hand, Rachel Portman's score, composed with Laksham Joseph de Saram, effectively sets the moods of the piece and, in particular, the character of Georges, who's given a suitably predatory theme.
Surprisingly, and to his credit, Robert Pattinson is rather convincing as a cad. Like Harry Potter's Daniel Radcliffe, Pattinson might take a little time to shake his Twilight persona, but with films like Bel Ami, and the soon-to-be released David Cronenberg feature, Cosmopolis, he's headed in the right direction. And unlike Georges Duroy, he seems prepared to put in the hard work.