It makes perfect sense that Rob Pattinson would continue his attempts to broaden his fan base as the “Twilight” franchise nears its end. Starring in a new film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel “Bel Ami” certainly advances that project: Playing Georges Duroy, an unscrupulous ex-soldier who makes his way up the ladder of Parisian high society by seducing the wives of powerful men, adds a few strings to his bow. (Sony Worldwide Acquisitions Group is putting the film out through Magnolia.)
Duroy is unscrupulous, self-absorbed and nakedly ambitious, but has enough sexual magnetism to further his career by talking his way into some of the city’s most opulent bedrooms. Pattinson is thus involved in screen liaisons with actresses old enough to be mothers to “Twilight”’s core audience. It’s a leap of sorts, and not without its risks.
For all that, it’s hard not to wish “Bel Ami” was more engaging. Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are making their debuts as feature film directors after long, stellar careers with the acclaimed theatre company Cheek by Jowl. Their stage background is sometimes apparent: “Bel Ami” (shot in Budapest, standing in for Paris) may well be a story that mostly takes place indoors, but on screen it often feels cramped and claustrophobic.
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The topical relevance of “Bel Ami” cannot be overstated. Duroy, returned to France after serving with the French army in Algeria, is a figure who rises in society without actually achieving very much – not a million miles from so many of today’s celebrities. He uses a career in journalism as his ticket to the top, but is barely capable of writing a coherent sentence. Yet he sees that fame can equate with power and influence. It’s all very 21st century.
So is a subplot about political corruption and hypocrisy, and the role journalism can play in bringing down politicians, and even governments. In Britain especially, where hacking scandals have closed down a national newspaper and fraudulent expenses claims by members of Parliament have dominated headlines in recent years, this is resonant material. Yet somehow it never quite meshes with the main narrative: Duroy’s growing influence, and the women he seduces to make it happen.
Fortunately the three actresses in question acquit themselves well. Uma Thurman, the wife of an influential political editor, is a knowing, empathetic character who endorses Duroy’s ambitions, and even writes his piece detailing his memories as a young soldier. Kristin Scott Thomas is the initially frosty wife of a newspaper boss – and few do frosty better than Scott Thomas. But she becomes infatuated by Duroy and reduced to begging him not to end their affair.
Best of all is Christina Ricci as Clothilde, an amiable, charming society woman who Duroy swiftly seduces. Ricci’s career has fluctuated since her film successes in her childhood and adolescence, but here she is more of a vivacious, effective screen presence than she’s been in years.
But Pattinson himself is a problem as Duroy. He displays the character’s ruthlessness adequately and his wolfish smile is a useful weapon in his regard. But he seems ill-at-ease in terms of playing a period role. It’s not that he’s a bad actor, but he looks very much a contemporary young man in a historical context; his body language is too casual and informal for the social circles in which Duroy makes his moves. (The thought occurs that his next role, playing a young Manhattan money-market tycoon in David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Don deLillo’s “Cosmopolis,” should suit Pattinson down to the ground.)
As for “Bel Ami,” the R-Patz fan community may well investigate it out of curiosity – and it certainly shows their idol in more explicit situations than they’ve seen before. But it’s unlikely to appeal greatly to them; in truth, it’s skewed to older audiences, who may appreciate the themes underlying de Maupassant’s story without them being explicitly spelled out.