There is something to be said about a character we know we’re not going to like from the very start, and who spends an entire film working towards making us like him even less. Such a man is Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson), who, in Bel Ami, connives his way up the social ladder of late nineteenth century Paris in a selfish and cruel effort to not be poor. Never once does he tempt us to see things from his perspective or to sympathize with him, for he makes it clear that his sense of morality has been permanently warped. From the audience’s point of view, that does not make him any less fascinating or hypnotic a character; the filmmakers understand that his handsome features and unrelenting coldness can be used as weapons against us, inspiring curiosity and perhaps even lust in the minds of the decent. He’s alluring by virtue of the fact that he’s heartless.
You can sense throughout the film an undercurrent of Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the stage and screen adaptations it has inspired, most notably Stephen Frears’ 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons. But unlike the Vicomte de Valmont, who destroyed love lives purely for the sport of it, Georges Duroy’s uses his amorality as a defense mechanism against his own upbringing. As the son of peasants, he has seen the indignity of scraping together a worthless existence. He uses his unseen father as an example, a man he claims worked his fingers to the bone with only the hope that the next life will be better. “It’s not enough to be loved,” he says in a controlled fury to one of his lovers. She does not understand where he’s coming from. “I’ve seen a man die,” he tells her. “I am going to live. It’s so clear to me.”
At the start of the film, Duroy is a lowly railway clerk who barely makes enough to get a beer at the local can-can bar. This is after having served several years in the military, which included a tour in Algeria. One night, while prowling the bar for an opportunity, he just happens to bump into his former comrade, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), now the successful political editor of La Vie Française – the newspaper, he claims, that brings down the government. Duroy is gentle but direct as he attempts to manipulate Forestier into sharing his financial connections. Taking the bait, Forestier gives Duroy his business card with his home address, two coins for buying an evening suit, and a verbal invitation to dinner. Although Duroy does come to dinner dressed to the nines, we clearly see him using Forestier’s money on a prostitute.
When he first arrives at Forestier’s opulent townhouse, Duroy all at once meets the three women that will in one form or another prove beneficial to him on his ascent to power and wealth. One is Forestier’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), whose political connections are just as dangerous as they are extensive. Another is Madeleine’s friend, Virginie Rousset (Kristen Scott Thomas), the wife of Monsieur Rousset (Colm Meaney), the owner and chief editor of La Vie Française. And then there’s another friend, Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), who in due time will become Duroy’s main lover, despite having absolutely no interest in politics. Clotilde’s unseen husband, apparently a man of great wealth, is usually away from home for long periods, making liaisons between Clotilde and Duroy possible. Her young daughter comes to like Duroy almost immediately and bestows him with the nickname Bel Ami.
Because of a convenient twist of fate I won’t reveal, Duroy and Madeline are able to marry. It’s because of her that he’s able to land and maintain a writing position at La Vie Française; he’s barely literate, so she writes his articles for him, feverishly taking cues from the latest political gossip regarding an upcoming invasion of Morocco. Their mutual attempts at one-upsmanship are surprisingly difficult to make sense of, and it only gets more complicated with the addition of a prominent political figure named Francois Laroche (James Lance). As their marriage grows increasingly icy, Duroy continues his affair with Clotilde, the one woman he seems genuinely interested in. As a form of revenge against his wife, Duroy will start an affair with the insecure Virginie, made all the more scandalous by the fact that she has never been someone’s mistress.
Although the plot is apt to meander and is not especially compelling, especially when yet another romantic subplot is added to the mix during the final act, Bel Ami does possess a certain seductive charm. In part it’s because of the elegant set and costume designs, but mostly it’s because of the performances. Pattinson’s take on a mannered scoundrel is intriguingly nuanced; we pay more attention to the malicious words his character isn’t speaking, betrayed by the slightest smirks and subtlest nods of the head. Ricci is in especially good form, which is nothing short of amazing given the fact that her character is hard to read. No one – not her, not Duroy, and certainly not the audience – understands why she keeps coming back to him. All we do know is that, given his complete lack of scruples and his callous toying of the human heart, he does not deserve her.
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About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi (Chris_Pandolfi)
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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