I wanted to like this film. I really did. But Bel Ami, despite all its potential, is just unlikeable.
Based on Guy de Maupassant’s novel published in 1885, it is the first film directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the co-founders of theatre company Cheek by Jowl.
Bel Ami boasts an impressive cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci, and Colm Meaney all play supporting roles. The production values are impressive considering the film’s small budget. But it is undone by a weak script and an abysmal leading man.
The story follows its protagonist Georges Duroy (portrayed incompetently by the charmless Robert Pattinson) as he rises to power with the help of three women: Madeleine Forestier (Thurman), Clothilde de Marelle (Ricci), and Virginie Rousset (Scott Thomas).
His social climb is set against the backdrop of France’s conquest of Tunisia in 1881 (lightly fictionalised as a conquest of Morocco, which actually came after Maupassant’s death) and the rise of the mass-circulation press and its close connections with financial speculation.
The original text has some radical anti-imperialist edge, all but excised from the screenplay (which inexplicably re-dates the story to 1890).
In the film, Madeleine and Georges uncover that the French government is planning to invade Tunisia (alias Morocco) and they use that to topple the government through Duroy’s column in the newspaper La Vie Française, run by Rousset (Meaney).
Then the new government, with which Rousset has links, invades after all, with the ministers and their friends having first set up financial deals so that they will profit hugely from the invasion.
But this interesting thread is overshadowed by Duroy’s sexual escapades. He first meets the women at a party to which he, as yet just a poor ex-soldier, a veteran of the French occupation of Algeria, is invited by Charles Forestier, an old army friend. Clothilde quickly starts an affair with him, for reasons entirely unclear to the viewer.
Duroy in the film has none of the scoundrelly charm of Duroy in the book. One simply cannot understand why these women like him.
He glowers and glares his way into women’s beds, barely uttering a word. Even the formidable Madeleine, who first responds to him by saying that she will not become his mistress (as if it were automatic that she should, absent some special reason otherwise), eventually marries him following her husband’s death.
But her informed and intelligent conversation bores him and he is already sleeping with the young, beautiful and loving Clothilde. He later takes up with Virginie, ostensibly to punish Rousset for some slight despite the fact that the only reason Rousset is unkind to him is that Duroy is lazy and makes Madeleine write his articles for him.
The film ends with Duroy marrying the Roussets’ daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger), having exposed Madeleine’s infidelities and divorced her. He’s ruined many lives but there is no sense of poignancy.
This may be because Pattinson as Duroy never changes his expression. Despite a busy plot, he only ever frowns or sneers, even when things begin to go his way.
The film drags, yet cuts out much of the political punch of Maupassant’s book, and many of its grace notes, such as Duroy and Madeleine visiting Duroy’s parents.