Georges (Pattinson) is a broke soldier attempting to strike rich in 1890s Paris. Barely literate and with an unquenchable hunger for riches, he decides to take the route more suited to his talents; seduction. After a chance encounter with a former acquaintance introduces him to high society, he seizes the chance and begins to make his presence known among the circle’s women. Soon enough, he’s sleeping with a bunch of them, hopping from one bed to the next, benefitting his wallet and leaving a slew of broken hearts in his wake. There’s a political subplot also in there somewhere, but it isn’t really worth mentioning. But then again, the film’s more of a character study than it is plot oriented.
Bel Ami, in a nutshell, is a reverse gendered, corseted take on Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ except way less contagious or fun. And while the song in general could have been written for Georges, these lyrics in particular encapsulate his own particular attitude towards life:
They can beg and they can plead but they can’t see the light
Because the boy with the cold, hard cash is always mister right.
Acting-wise, Pattinson’s Twilight experience has served him well. He’s now a master in onscreen brooding as Bel Ami is only too happy to showcase. He pouts, he smoulders, he burns with a desire for riches, but funnily enough, he’s highly unconvincing when playing the seducer. Georges is almost painfully passionate about money and Pattinson completely nails the side of him that willl do anything to steer clear of poverty’s clutches. But when it comes to women, Georges is as bland and stilted as Edward Cullen.
As for the women, Thurman and Scott-Thomas give oddly exaggerated performances. The latter in particular changes, in the blink of an eye, from the quintessential lady to one suffering from hysteria, throwing herself at Georges’ feet and begging for a scrap of his attention. Ricci on the other hand, is perfect as Clotilde; Georges’ main squeeze. She manages to nail her character without veering into the theatrical and gives a rather captivating performance. Needless to say, however, all three of them look incredible in their costumes.
As is only fitting for a film set in la belle époque, Bel Ami is beautiful. For all their grandeur, however, the costumes and décor are still incapable of distracting you from the fact that the film is just incredibly melodramatic. It’s like an old school soap opera; the kind that move at a glacial pace over millions of episodes.
There’s an interesting story buried in there and the film has quite a talented cast, but what it lacks is a good director; one capable of coaxing performances as good as Ricci’s from the rest of the cast – not an impossible feat by any means and one that could have made the film consistently entertaining instead of being as patchy as it is.