Disappointingly, it’s not the biography of everyone’s favourite bearded botanist or the story of Teignmouth’s favourite son, but Robert Pattinson’s new anti-morality tale set in the hedonistic heights of late 19th century Paris. But while it boasts an all-star cast and some lavish costume design, it, like its protagonist, is vapid, shallow and ultimately with little to recommend it.
Pattinson plays George Duroy, an impoverished and near illiterate ex-soldier who is taken under the wing of a former comrade Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) who happens to be the political editor of a fashionable Parisian magazine.
Handed a job writing a “the diary of a cavalryman” despite having no writing ability, he’s fortunate to make the acquaintance of Forestier’s wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman), who not only writes his column for him but also shares a nugget of wisdom – that if he really wants to get ahead, he’s better off currying favour with powerful men’s wives than the men themselves.
Taking that advice to heart, Duroy begins to seduce the women of Paris using his charm and good looks as a substitute for talent (of which he has none) and slowly begins his climb up the social ladder.
Pattinson fits the bill perfectly – he’s a good looking man who’s been honing his brooding skills to a fine art since 2008’s Twilight. But with very little dialogue, he’s mostly relegated to scowling while women unaccountably throw themselves at him. Very rarely do we get a sense that he’s a cunning schemer and he comes across as more a lucky fool who has good things perpetually thrust upon him.
Consequently, Duroy isn’t a compelling character. He’s unlikeable not because his actions are reprehensible (in fact anti-heroes can make the most engaging protagonists) but because he does nothing to deserve his good fortune. He has none of the cunning nous or delicious Machiavellian manipulation of John Malkovlch’s Vicomte de Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons – still the pinnacle of French-penned social deviousness.
The greatest pleasure is his on-off relationship with Clothilde (Ricci), which comes closest to probing the depths that lie beneath his vacant eyes. But Bel Ami is oddly passionless for a film which hinges on bedroom antics as much as it does – there’s no spark of feeling at all between Madeleine or the older desperate Madame Rousette (Kristin Scott Thomas).
Bel Ami is curiously probably more relevant today than it was when it was penned – after all, in this age more than in any other, it’s easy to get ahead with good looks and little talent. However, even a stellar cast can’t lift a story which is as soulless and as empty as its protagonist.