A scoundrel’s successful climb
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 8, 2012
“Twilight’s” Robert Pattinson portrays a vampire of a different sort in “Bel Ami,” an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel that is as wan and in need of blood as Edward Cullen.
It’s not that the movie -- by first-time directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, who come from the world of theater -- is dull, exactly. There’s plenty of sex and intrigue in this costume drama about a military veteran who uses his ability to seduce women to engineer his rise from poverty to a position of power in Paris.
It’s just that Pattinson’s performance is so enervated that his Georges Duroy comes across as something of a cipher. He’s not quite alive, yet also clearly not dead, given the amount of sex he has. He’s undead, or at least uninteresting.
Using his charm -- and his connection with editor Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), an officer with whom he served in Algeria -- Georges quickly lands a job as a journalist upon returning home from the army. But his power over Charles’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), really serves him best. Soon she’s writing his columns for him, and fixing him up with her friend Clotilde (Christina Ricci), who is married, but not monogamous.
Presumably, no one in Paris is. Later, Georges also beds Madeleine’s friend Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), less out of lust than as a way to punish Virginie’s husband (Colm Meaney), who has humiliated Georges -- by mocking him as a talentless striver -- in public.
But he is a talentless striver. Or at least initially he is.
In the beginning, Madeleine uses him to advance the political agenda of her husband’s newspaper more than he uses her. That eventually changes, when Georges marries Madeleine after her husband dies and then uses some of the tricks he has picked up as her acolyte to turn against her, exploiting her for money and social position. He has learned how to play the game too well.
But what game is that? And what’s the point of winning? It’s hard to know what Georges wants, or why. The subtitle of the novel (whose title loosely translates as “lover”) is “The History of a Scoundrel.” And Georges is certainly that. He’s as amoral as they come, though perhaps no more so than any other character. He’s simply better at it. Betrayal and exploitation fly in every direction in “Bel Ami.”
But at least the motives of the other characters are clear: pleasure, political power, money, love. For Georges, none of these things seem that important. “I don’t understand,” Clotilde tells him at one point, echoing a sentiment that the audience may be feeling as well.
“You’ve never been poor,” Georges replies, as a way of explaining how he can be so incapable of caring what happens to anyone who stands between him and his next meal -- or his next meal ticket.
Georges Duroy is not a person, you see, so much as an insatiable appetite. That may be fine for a movie about bloodsuckers, but “Bel Ami” suffers from the lack of a relatable protagonist, or at least one with a beating heart.
Contains nudity, sex scenes and some obscenity.