It is not a mystery that Hollywood would want to make movies from the emblematic stories of French novelist and short story writer Guy de Maupassant. The latest example is a new version of perhaps his most famous novel, Bel-Ami (in English translation, Bel Ami, Or, the History of a Scoundrel), and it is something of a mystery why this particular film was made and distributed. After all, it is the first feature film from directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, and it uses the first feature screenplay by former script editor Rachel Bennette, in a compact and prosaic adaptation of Maupassant (gone are the lengthy diversions on Algeria and the railways cutting across Paris). A bevy of big-name actresses were attached to the project, and at least one other, Nicole Kidman, had to turn down a role. We are left with the conclusion that the motivation was to make a vehicle for the film's leading man: playing the social-climbing Georges Duroy is Robert Pattinson, who was Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and has more recently become known as the media-saturated star of the Twilight franchise.
The casting makes sense in a way, because the thing that sets Maupassant's protagonist, Georges Duroy, apart is his good looks and charm. A soldier returning from service in Algeria, Duroy ends up poor and out of work in Paris. By chance, he meets an old friend with connections in politics and newspaper publishing -- and, more importantly, he gains access to the wives of these powerful men, who start to call him by the nickname Bel Ami, or handsome friend. Pattinson is not quite the perfect type for Duroy, whom Maupassant describes as dark blond and blue-eyed, with a moustache, but he is a certain quantity among female viewers, and echoes of his vampire chic look made sense for the hungry arriviste, who rises out of poverty and illness. Pattinson followers may be enough for this somewhat clumsy period piece to do well at the box office, but he is -- perhaps appropriately for the character -- mostly a cipher at the center of the film. As often happens in film adaptations of great books, the subtlety of characterization and innuendo -- "This was the time for skilful double meanings, veils lifted by words as one lifts skirts, the time for ruses of language, for quick-witted and disguised audacity, for all improper hypocrisies, for the sentence that shows unclothed images with covered language, that makes the eye and mind see the rapid vision of all that cannot be said, that permits worldly people to share a sort of subtle and mysterious love, a sort of touch of impure thoughts by the simultaneous, troubling, and sensual evocation, like an embrace, of all secret, shameful, and desired things of coupling" -- is replaced by steamy sex scenes, not a happy trade-off for the lack of emotional range, especially in the central character.
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Duroy begins his climb out of his desperate garret, with poverty represented simplistically and humorously in the film by a single cockroach that crawls near Pattinson at one point, through a former army friend, Forestier (Philip Glenister), who gets him a job at his newspaper, La Vie Française. By far the best part of the film is the nostalgic evocation of the age of newspapers: the smoke-filled newsroom with earnest men in ink-stained sleeves, feverishly writing out copy in longhand and delivering it by hand or idly playing bilboquet (ball and cup) while waiting for proofs, the newsstand in front of the Gare Saint-Lazare with the piles of different broadsheets, the sense of journalism not only reporting but making the news. Parts of Duroy are drawn from Maupassant's life -- his attraction to dangerous women (he died of syphilis), his work as a journalist, and his rise to great wealth (later in life, Maupassant sailed the world on his yacht, named the Bel-Ami). The intelligence in the film, such as it is, is provided by the beautiful women who fall into Duroy's arms: an elegant, cold Uma Thurman as Forestier's wife, the woman behind the man; an enigmatic Christina Ricci as her friend Clotilde de Marelle; and the haughty Kristin Scott Thomas as Virginie Walters, the wife of the newspaper's editor (a pompous Colm Meaney). The original music -- credit shared by Lakshman Joseph De Saram and film and opera composer Rachel Portman, whose last film score noted here was for The Duchess -- is equally nondescript.
This film opens today in Washington, D.C., at the Landmark E Street Cinema.