The story which sees a returning soldier of very little social worth climbing up the ladder of society through seduction and manipulation is mildly diverting at best but in the end it all amounts to very little. Georges successive courting of three high society women, making a cuckold of a few men in the process, are played, respectably, by Christina Ricci, Uma Thurman and Kristin Scott Thomas. These trysts enable his shaky rise to power but as is the way with such things deceit and emotional instability begin to hobble the cause before too long.
Bel Ami is too workmanlike in execution to really engage us, lacking in the wit and sincerity required to keep its premise afloat. Any thrills provided come across as crass and empty, the whole affair playing like the illusion of love the Cad will contrive to work his way into your bed and by the end you feel used by the film in very much the same way. We do not care enough to be swept up in the hedonistic part of Duroy’s journey so why should we then care when it takes a turn for the tragic?
This is a cold and detached film, and it doesn’t give enough either way. You never root for or pity this character. You must simply tolerate him as his rise and fall plays out in a depressingly predictable arc. It’s clear Pattinson is trying here to branch out and leave his teen idol status behind. Those so smitten with him from the Twilight series may at first be excited by the flesh and titillation on display but his character is so vile it won’t be long before they wish him back to teen immortality and pouting over shouting.
No one is going to be ‘Team Georges’ after this. Despite his attempts to carve out a new facet to his acting style there just isn’t enough skill for him to carry it off. His Georges isn’t imposing or menacing, he is petulant and unfeeling and is played in a very pedestrian way. He just doesn’t have the gravitas required for the big emotional releases which emerge in the later stages of the film although he may be crippled by the scripts inability to do justice to the themes it desperately wants to be tackling.
Elsewhere any flickers of life that one can attribute to the film must be credited to the triumvirate of the female performances. Scott Thomas is given a thankless role as the most shamelessly besotted of his conquests, her character goes from barely there to histrionic bluster in an implausibly short time. That is another criticism that must be levelled at the film, everything happens at an indecent haste. While I’m delighted the film is relatively short, the rush of events seems quite unlikely, his initial encounters speed by quickly, alliances forged, attractions made before we’ve gotten to know anyone. This adds to the sense that we never get to see Georges revel in his success at any point as we don’t believe in any of the core relationships.
Uma Thurman puts in a fine performance as the most complex of the women he deals with but again it is very difficult to invest in their union. While Thurman is the lynchpin acting wise Ricci puts in a truly luminous performance and is the only character the viewer can approach with affection and empathy. Its period trappings are well mounted and the whole thing has an authenticity in that regard, it’s just a shame there’s such a vacuum at its rotten core.
Bel Ami is released on 9th March 2012