In first three installments of the cinematic Twilight saga an enormous amount of screen time was devoted to the forced celibacy of sparkly vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson). He wanted to have sex, but his moral code prevented it. This led to what some would call a sort of tortured tedium. In Bel Ami, the latest screen adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel, Pattinson portrays a man who has no moral code and gets to have tons of sex, with various women of smart Parisian society, played by the likes of Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristen Scott Thomas. Yet mysteriously, the tedium continues.
Pattinson is pretty boy George Duroy, the son of peasants, recently returned from military service in Africa. Duroy is penniless and keeping company with prostitutes when newspaperman Forestier (Philip Glenister) befriends him and invites him to come meet his wife, the brilliant and beguiling Madeleine (Thurman). Madeleine hosts a salon regularly attended by what George gleefully takes as desperate housewives, including young Clotilde (Christina Ricci) and older, Virginie (Kristen Scott Thomas), who is married to the owner of the paper.
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They all find George appealing—his chiseled features look sharp above evening dress and all of their husbands are nearly as frumpy as real newspaper men—and his charm quickly leads to Forestier giving him a column about a soldier’s life. Madeleine writes the column for him, while Clotilde feathers a love nest and Virginie flutters nervously about, making it known that she’s on deck for cougar time. It’s Clotilde’s little girl that nicknames George “Bel Ami,” loosely translated in this case to, That Hot Airhead.
It takes him awhile to figure out his nickname isn’t exactly a compliment. In Pattinson’s hands, George is an opportunist, but a naïve and petulant one; he’s so transparently devious and simultaneously dumb that if he lived today, he might set his sights on Paris Hilton or some such, taking the ticket to ride without considering what the life might be like on her ferris wheel. He’s neither a fun villain or a secret good guy; the movie feels like a senseless venture because, even with his pants down on top of Clotilde or manhandling Virginie, he’s the dullest scoundrel around. In the scenes set in the house he comes to share with Madeleine, I found myself focusing on the wallpaper behind him, which was also beautiful, but more interesting.
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Is it his acting, the inexperience of co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod—each making their feature film debut—or both? Some reports from Cannes (although not the above from TIME’s Richard Corliss) had Pattinson coming into his own in David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, but he gives no hint of depths in Bel Ami. On the other hand, even an expert meanie like Colm Meany, playing George’s dismissive editor, doesn’t make much of an impression. The ladies fare a little better. Scott Thomas, despite her blessings in the innate elegance department, makes a convincing case she’s as pleased at being petted as a neglected whippet. In between considered puffs on a cigarette and playing a parlor game of French politics, Thurman’s Madeleine has a memorable sex scene with George involving both a figurative and, one senses from the pain on Pattinson’s face, literal testicular crushing. Time check: it’s been 24 years since she played the innocent virgin in the similarly themed, infinitely superior Dangerous Liaisons (which in turn spawned its own teenaged version, Cruel Intentions, apt to be a lot more fun for Pattinson’s Twilight fans than Bel Ami). Reality check: Robert Pattinson and John Malkovich; very different generations of le sex machine Française.