Bel Ami

Sturdy adaptation of the Guy de Maupassant classic

Bel Ami

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Directed by Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod. Starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Holliday Grainger, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, Natalia Tena, Colm Meaney, Philip Glenister. Written by Rachel Bennette, from the Guy de Maupassant novel.

The filmmaking in Bel Ami, from debut directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, is rarely anything special, but the soul of the late nineteenth-century Guy de Maupassant story shines through: this is a complex, literate, and adult period drama, something we get precious little of these days.

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In 1890s France, Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) has just returned from military service in Algiers, and is out on the prowl at a Paris nightclub. There, he runs into old army buddy Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who helps him clean up, gets him a job at the newspaper he works for, and introduces him to his circle of friends.

Those friends include wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman), the beautiful Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), and Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the owner of the newspaper, Rousset (Colm Meaney), who plots to overthrow the current government with the stories he prints.

“The most important people in Paris are not the men, but their wives,” Madeleine tells Georges, “a good word from Virginie will get you further than a month of groveling to Rousset.” This sets the wheels in motion: Georges is an amoral scoundrel, but so are the rest of them; he’s only doing what comes naturally.

Directors Donnellan and Ormerod have previously worked on the stage; there’s rarely any overtly cinematic quality at play here, much of the film being dialogue-driven (outdoor shots, in particular, deprive us of period detail, though the costumes are excellent). There are a number of surprisingly erotic scenes, however, and a memorably painful sequence between Pattinson and Thurman.

Pattinson has acquitted himself well outside of the Twilight universe with his roles in Water for Elephants, Remember Me, and now Bel Ami; still, his climatic speech here doesn’t resonate quite as well as it should.

His female co-stars are exquisite: Thurman, in particular, is wonderful as Madeleine Forestier, easily the best she’s been (throaty, almost parodic accent and all) since Kill Bill. Scott Thomas is an especially convincing Virginie; Ricci is luminous as the woman whose love Georges forsakes on his rise through the ranks.

This adaptation of Bel Ami isn’t the definitive film version (that would be 1947’s The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, starring George Sanders), but it’s a wholly acceptable interpretation for contemporary audiences. The film has been released in many European territories, but despite the cast, won’t bow in the US cinemas until June; that’s little surprise, given the themes at play here.

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