The Way We Get By, by David Bax

Before seeing Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod’s Bel Ami, I knew actor Robert Pattinson solely from his small but crucial role in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (IMDB tells me he was also in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair but my memory of that film is not strong). I found him adequate as Harry’s ill-fated classmate Cedric Diggory in Michael Newell’s film but, being at least halfway conscious during most of my days, I was aware that much had changed for Pattinson in the years since. I was intrigued to see what he’d become. Furthering my interest was the fact that many of his role choices since hitting it big in the Twilight franchise had been, in some way or another, interesting. Sure, there was Remember Me, which you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn is not an adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks novel, but there was also Water for Elephants, which proved he was aiming for an audience a little older than the one he encountered shrieking just beyond the barriers of the red carpet. Then I heard about Cosmopolis. Wanting to work with David Cronenberg struck me as very ambitious indeed. All this is to say that, when I heard he’d be the lead in Bel Ami, based on an 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant, I got my hopes up. Now that I’ve seen it, my hopes remain up that Pattinson will continue to choose parts other than those his agent might set out for him. Not that this one isn’t a good role, it’s just that it’s in such a bad movie.

Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, a former member of the French military now hanging around Paris in 1890. When he encounters a man he knew from his time stationed in Africa named Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), he finds himself enmeshed in a higher social class. Discovering that he quite likes money and power but not the work it takes to maintain it, he begins looking for other ways to hold and to further his status. Specifically, he uses his looks and charms to seduce a succession of woman who are in a position to help him.

This is a story that could make for a decent film. In fact, I recently attended a screening of Vincent Sherman’s The Damned Don’t Cry from 1950, in which Joan Crawford employs similar tactics to ascend the ladder of the criminal underworld. That movie was great. Bel Ami’s take on the concept would seem to be the compelling notion that what’s essential to financial and social success is not what traits you possess but what traits you don’t. Particularly, any specific moral convictions or principles are best avoided, as are stickier emotions like compassion or sympathy.

Yet this is not a decent film. Perhaps the best word for what it is would be preposterous. It’s incredibly broad and shallow. It’s unapologetically melodramatic, which is not a bad thing in and of itself but the directors insist on shouting every big moment or plot development at us, even when the screenplay by Rachel Bennette is trying to be artful. Donnellan & Ormerod have overheated every exchange and included laughably obvious visual metaphors such as in the scene where Duroy watches a rival die of tuberculosis and imagines himself smashing a cockroach on the floor. The score, credited to Lakshman Joseph de Saram & Rachel Portman, swells and soars in fits. The melodies are gripping but the music towers and this film is not deep enough to contain it.

One of the most disappointing things about Bel Ami’s failure is the waste of such a good cast. The aforementioned Glenister and the always reliable Colm Meaney are commanding as editors of the newspaper that is Duroy’s entrée into upper class life. Christina Ricci is as beguiling as she’s been in ages as the high society good-time girl who has a much richer and more intelligent inner life than her initial coquettishness implies. Uma Thurman is wonderfully forceful as the woman who plays within social mores but strives when possible to achieve tasks that are meant for men. Finally, Kristin Scott Thomas is the slightly older rich man’s wife who is ostensibly content in her life but who becomes heartbreakingly and endearingly girlish when experiencing simple carnal pleasures for what may be the first time.

Finally, there is Pattinson. Whether or not he’s good is hard to say. Having the bulk of the film’s screen time, he is most vulnerable to Donnellan & Ormerod’s wrongheaded influences. What’s notable is that he is showing the early signs (in a way comparable to Daniel Radcliffe right now) of the desire to move beyond a youth spent in roles for which talent was secondary at best. Like a Johnny Depp or a Leonardo Dicaprio, he’s got a respectable ambition. Maybe he’s not on the same level as the magnificent and experienced cast that surrounds him but he chose the same project they did so I don’t think you can blame him for Bel Ami being so unsuccessful.

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