Directed by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod with screenplay by Rachel Bennette, Bel Ami is a British period drama based on the 1885 French novel by Guy de Maupassant.
Premiered as an Official Selection at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival, the film chronicles the life of Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson), a penniless ex-soldier who travels through 1890s Paris, rising to power through his manipulation of the city’s most influential and wealthy women – Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman), Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci).
From first time feature film directors Donnellan and Ormerod, founders of the Cheek by Jowl theatre company, Bel Ami is a respectable drama due to its original source. With an interesting storyline to follow, the film is very well put together and is led by a talented cast, but its biggest asset is the look of the film. With stunning settings and wardrobes, Bel Ami manages to capture what is important for a period drama, giving us something tich and engaging even when its visually pleasing attributes take some of the focus away from what it is lacking – a decent script and more developed characters.
What’s most disappointing, however, is that it’s not as sexy as you would expect. From a first look it would seem that the film’s biggest feature would be the promiscuity of its lead character. It has it moments, but most of these scenes become forced and uncomfortable for those involved, meaning that the only real seductive moments come from the cheeky grin on Christina Ricci’s face whenever she decides she wants more. Because of this the focus falls back to the narrative which, whilst I’ve already said it has its strengths, is more serious than thrilling. The excitement of it all seems to get lost and, in the end, it just isn’t the sexy period drama that it could have been. Instead, it’s an average drama with a bit of sex on the side, and that just doesn’t do the film any favours.
Led by the ever controversial choice of the once vampire Robert Pattinson, this will be the main reason that you enjoy Bel Ami or not. Whilst he’s proven that he can lead a film brilliant – just look at Remember Me and Water For Elephants – this isn’t one to put on the list. He does give a strong performance throughout, but his character doesn’t have enough depth to really engage you in the madness going on inside his head here. Because of the focus that his role has, his character instead becomes rather dull and it just doesn’t give the impact that is needed.
Fortunately he works with three brilliant female co-stars that help to over shadow this. Whilst this means that his role is undermined a little, Ricci, Scott-Thomas and Thurman all play their parts excellently. Ricci, especially, was really well cast for her part, and by the end of the film it is she, instead of Pattinson, that stands out, giving a superb and provocative performance that will be remembered the most.
There’s nothing that especially stands out about Bel Ami but taking everything into considering it is highly watchable and I would even say re-watchable. If anything, it does make you want to read the book so that you can fill in the gaps for yourself.
Bel Ami was released on DVD and Blu-ray last week, which include interviews with the cast and crew as well as a special behind the scenes featurette.