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BERLIN — There are countless brooding shots of Robert Pattinson in Bel Ami, occasionally of him shirtless and invariably drenched in overwrought music. That might titillate the swooning legions of Team Edward Twilight fans, but for the grown-ups, there’s not much here to bite into. Neophyte film directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, with help from Rachel Bennette’s shallow screenplay, have reduced Guy de Maupassant’s portrait of corrupting ambition to a risible bodice-ripper.
Published in 1885, as Maupassant was slowly succumbing to syphilis, the novel centers on Georges Duroy, a handsome young social climber from the provinces, fresh out of the cavalry in Algeria and hungry to make his fortune in belle epoque Paris. Broke and blessed with no discernible talents, he quickly learns that the path to power is not through important men but their influential wives.
We get Georges’ number in early glimpses of Pattinson glowering at the shabby walls of his cramped apartment or enviously watching the Paris swells. He’s at his most expressive when clobbering a cockroach to death. But there’s no inner life in the miscast actor’s one-dimensional characterization. He lacks the fundamental guile for the role, played in one of the best-known previous versions (1947’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami) by the inimitably supercilious George Sanders.
When Georges shows his true colors, one of his key stepping stones, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), says, “I had no conception of the depths of your emptiness.” As so often happens in Bennette’s adaptation, she’s stating the obvious. The assessment is aimed at the venal character but applies equally to the charisma-free performance, in which there’s nobody home.
That’s a big problem when we are expected to buy the beguiling magnetism of this dullard, who is short on conversation skills, social graces and virility but leaves every woman he meets spellbound.
Georges’ entree into high society comes via old regiment buddy Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), now the well-connected political editor of national daily La Vie Francaise. Charles gives him cash to buy formalwear and invites him to a dinner at which he instantly mesmerizes his friend’s wife, Madeleine; the flirty Clotilde (Christina Ricci); and the more composed Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the paper’s editor, Monsieur Rousset (Colm Meaney).
He begins an affair with the married Clotilde, portrayed here as a lightweight on the same wavelength as Georges, and the woman he comes closest to loving. Her husband is often away, so she sets Georges up in an apartment for their trysts. With Madeleine’s help, he gets a job at La Vie Francaise but develops no skill as a writer. When Charles loses patience with him, Georges turns to Madame Rousset to secure his position.
A convenient death, a strategic marriage and much bed-hopping later, Georges has landed a scoop thanks to Madeleine’s political savvy. But when he is shut out of a lucrative scheme to make a fortune off the government’s secret plan to invade Morocco, Georges truncates his affair with the infatuated Virginie and makes an enemy of her husband, meanwhile setting his sights on their clueless daughter (Holliday Grainger).
In Maupassant’s book, detailed descriptions of the women’s clothing, their skin and hair, their jewelry, helped convey that Georges’ intoxicating effect on them is mutual. The film’s gaze focuses chiefly on him and not through his eyes, so his behavior seems even more calculating. That would make sense if he didn’t also come across as a dolt.
Bennette’s screenplay is woefully short on connective tissue among characters and incident, lurching through eventful passages without sufficient narrative grounding. She fails to make much of the political backdrop or to engage in the novel’s sharp social analysis of a bourgeois Paris full of whores, opportunists and frauds.
In their theater work with the company they co-founded, Cheek by Jowl, Donnellan and Ormerod are known for pared-down design and dynamic approach to performance, enabling them to claw out vigorous new life in classic texts. Here the co-directors seem hampered by the weight of period production design and uncertain about how best to frame the action for maximum effect. Other than frequently favoring a chiaroscuro palette, Stefano Falivene’s cinematography lacks distinction. Most crucially, this is a film about sex that’s without sensuality.
More disappointing still is the evident absence of communication among the cast. Dialogue is often stilted and awkward, and the actors too rarely appear to inhabit the same world.
Pattinson is without gravitas, and while the women are generally more watchable, he has little chemistry with any of them. Thurman maintains a strained poise and haughty superiority even when Madeleine is humiliated. Ricci isn’t the most natural fit for a late-19th century European, though her vulnerability is a welcome note, and Scott Thomas deserves better than the undignified treatment her character receives.
As is often the case when the dramatic and emotional fabric is thin, the false solution is to drown every scene in blustery music, in this case by Lakshman Joseph de Saram and Rachel Portman. But it would take more than an agitated string section to lend substance to this vapid melodrama.
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (out of competition)
Production companies: Red Wave Films, in association with XIX Film, Protagonist Pictures, RAI Cinema
Cast: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, Colm Meaney, Philip Glenister, Holliday Grainger, Natalia Tena, James Lance, Anthony Higgins
Directors: Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod
Screenwriter: Rachel Bennette, based on the novel by Guy de Maupassant
Producer: Uberto Pasolini
Executive producer: Simon Fuller
Director of photography: Stefano Falivene
Production designer: Attila F. Kovacs
Music: Lakshman Joseph de Saram, Rachel Portman
Costume designer: Odile Dicks-Mireaux
Editor: Masahiro Hirakubo
Sales: Protagonist Pictures
No rating, 107 minutes
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