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Non-Review Review: Bel Ami

This film was seen as part of the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival 2012.

I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by Bel Ami, the first film from theatrical veterans Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod. It’s a classy little period drama that doesn’t necessarily redefine the genre, but instead stands as a worth addition to the canon. In a way, it seems like a more lavish BBC adaptation, which is quite a compliment when it comes to period drama. I don’t know if actor Robert Pattinson will necessarily find life after Twilight, but I imagine he will find a niché if he choses his next couple of roles as carefully as he chose this one.

Hm... This guy rings a Bel...

In many ways, Pattinson’s casting here reminds me of Daniel Radcliffe’s work on Woman in Black. Both men are currently trying to escape the shadow of monumental movie franchises, yet still trying to find roles that play to their strengths. Radcliffe’s transition from Harry Potter to Hammer House of Horror was a deft move, playing to many of the same strengths and yet distinguishing him from those family-friendly films. Pattinson does something similar here, playing to the same core archetype in a more mature setting.

Indeed, fans of Edward Cullen will find more than a few points of similarity between the vampire boyfriend and his role here. Playing Georges Duroy, Pattinson is still a sexual predator – an emotionally delicate young man keen to take advantage of women more naive than he is. In a wonderful overlap of archetypes, directors Donnellan and Ormerod chose to film one courtship sequence like a chase sequence from a horror film, as Duroy stalks the wife of an opponent through a church, trying to seduce her as petty revenge against her husband.

Nearer my heart ami...

Bel Ami might be more overt in its sexual politics, but it does cover a lot of the same thematic ground as Pattinson’s iconic role – such as the notion of damaged relationships between damaged people – and I think it’s a smooth point of transition. I don’t subscribe to the idea that Pattinson is a weak actor, a piece of internet gospel that seems to spread around as part of the overwhelming Twilight hatedom. I don’t think that we have seen the actor given a script that plays to his strengths, and Bel Ami is easily the best project that I have seen him in to date – comfortably ahead of any of the Twilight adaptations, Remember Me or Water for Elephants.

That said, Pattinson still has to convince me that he will make a convincing leading man after the franchise evaporates, but Bel Ami provides relatively strong evidence in his favour. He has more to work with here, and is given a character with significant depth and complexity. Georges Duroy is a character driven by base desires, and inner resentment, and Pattinson manages to express these quite well. I’m not yet entirely sold, but if he can turn out another few performances like this, I think I could be converted.

Lucky ladies...

The rest of the movie is solidly entertaining. Class drama is generally always fascinating – if only because it’s pretty much always relevant. Duroy’s struggle with his own independence is something that most of us will recognise and understand, and the movie deals with fairly broad social and political topics in a way that isn’t excessively intrusive. After all, the relationship between the media and government does seem quite timely at the moment, and I couldn’t help but imagine Colm Meaney was channelling Rupert Murdock as he declares, “I am more powerful than a king!”

That said, I can’t help but feel some of the political points are just a little bit behind the curve. As Barack Obama is in the middle of removing the United States from the Middle East, it seems like the script missed the window for relevance on the invasion subplot – as the media grapples with the French government’s planned invasion of Morocco. The movie leans rather heavily on the plot point, which makes it seem like the script was written when the build-up to the invasion of Iraq was taking place.

He's a lover, not a fighter...

It’s a minor complaint, but the movie does suffer a bit from being rather episodic. It seems like Georges tends to face an individual crisis, and emerge from it to face another, rather than the plot threads developing organically and growing towards the climax. For example, we are only briefly introduced to a minor character in the first third of the film (she doesn’t have any lines, but appears playing the piano), only for her to suddenly become hugely important in the third. It might have flowed a bit better to develop all the threads along side one another, rather than deploying them one-at-a-time.

Still, these are minor complaints. This is undoubtedly Pattinson’s film, but he is ably supported. Uma Thurman’s accent grates slightly, but her performance as Duroy’s muse is perfectly solid. Christina Ricci is reliable as the girl he always seems to fall back on. And Kristen Scott-Thomas is as graceful as ever as a lonely old wife, whose husband never tells her that she’s beautiful anymore. Philip Glenister and Colm Meaney also make the most of relatively small supporting roles.

Strange bed fellow...

The production design looks lavish, beautifully evoking the period and setting, without ever self-consciously drawing attention to it. There are no gaudy establishing shots with landmarks or anything. Directors Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod have done an absolutely exceptional job converting the city of Budapest into a replica of Paris. I especially like the round notice boards, a very nice Parisian touch.

Bel Ami is a solid piece of period drama, with a solid central performance, and some interesting observations on gender relations. It doesn’t necessarily excel, but it breezes along quite nicely and is never less than solidly entertaining.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

18 Responses

  1. I haven’t seen the film, but I read Maupassant a while ago, and frankly, the Morocco aspect really only seemed like a tool to illustrate one of the main aspects of the story as heard in the trailer: “The most important people in Paris are not the men – but their wives” – Duroy seducing women and just as easily abandoning them, depending on whatever gains him most advantage.

    This is why I found this review very interesting: Trying to imagine a “Bel-Ami” which is utilized to place not a usual ‘Vanity Fair’ kind of statement, but rather a political one. I wonder whether that would still be Maupassants Bel-Ami or just a loose adaption…

    • Thanks, i hope you enjoy it. The directors attended the screening and made a big deal of the movie’s relevance. Indeed, they none-too-subtly suggested that Dulroy was a potent metaphor for George W. Bush or Tony Blair (or arguably Bertie Ahern), a man who succeeded due to his personal charm rather than any innate skill or redeeming features, clinging to power until the last possible moment. It’s not a bad observation, but I didn’t want to get too bogged down in political discussion. It’s an interesting dimension, but I think it would ahve been more than interesting if the film had appeared two years ago.

  2. Thank you, sir, for your interestig and objectif review.
    Having read the book twice and having seen the movie too, I can find myself in your points of view of Bel ami, unlike those of some American critics who were way to harsh for the movie and Mr. Pattinson IMO.
    I thought Robert P. tried to show the differences between Georges’ thoughts and his actions and he did it in general very well. Sometimes there was a bit of overacting, probably due to the director’s theatratical experiences, but it didn’t disturb me at all. Robert Pattinson was only 23 when he took this role, while he could have gone the easy path of romcoms. That deserves some respect.
    The women Georges seduced weren’t that naive though: they all married an influential man for obvious reasons and used Georges for their (sexual) entertainment or as a tool to realise their own ambitions as Madeleine did.
    Beautiful movie with a promising future lead actor who held his own against 3 classy ladies.
    Sorry, English isn’t my first language.

    • Hi blackbeanie from robsessed.

      Nice review from you too.Fair. It doesn’t help Pattinson for his fans to rave at all his performances in an indiscriminate way.

      Fans need to cultivate their own discrimination in movies and what better plae to go than a blogger who is doing that and shaping your finer perceptions. Darren is very good on this. Trust me.

    • No worries, and I think they are fair points. Though I’m not entirely convinced – I think it’ll take a few more projects to ground him properly, but I think this is a very clever step in the right direction.

  3. I like so much the way you reviewed this. Thoughtful, contemplative and seriously fair.

    Would you like to see how I reviewed the book to be film. I haven’t read the screenplay but there are scenes from the trailer that deviate. Unnecessarily IMO.

    http://moviesandfilm.blogspot.com/2011/12/reading-bel-ami-through-marx-foucault.html

    http://moviesandfilm.blogspot.com/2011/07/reading-bel-ami-through-symbolic.html

    I read films, books and media events through a post modern filter which is the best I can do for any label. Please come visit me. I’ve added you to my blogroll and look forward to reading more of your writing.

  4. Can’t wait to see it! I guest this is the first time i see Robert Pattinson not in Twilight. Do you know when it release? I check this site: http://www.mkvfilms.net/ but they don’t have it yet.

  5. I havent seen the film because in my country it is not promoted. But I canot wait to see it.
    I love the actors and classical drama style..

  6. OK. I saw so many critical opinions. Some of them contains: it’s a wise step to loose Twilight. Just everybody forgets. he made this step before the Twilight crazyness. As the director said, they’ve got Mr Pattinson before the crazyness started…. Hmpf. Anyway, I liked the film.

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