The Movie Blog:
I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by Bel Ami, the first film from theatrical veterans Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod. It’s a classy little period drama that doesn’t necessarily redefine the genre, but instead stands as a worth addition to the canon. In a way, it seems like a more lavish BBC adaptation, which is quite a compliment when it comes to period drama. I don’t know if actor Robert Pattinson will necessarily find life after Twilight, but I imagine he will find a niche if he chooses his next couple of roles as carefully as he chose this one.
In many ways, Pattinson’s casting here reminds me of Daniel Radcliffe’s work on Woman in Black. Both men are currently trying to escape the shadow of monumental movie franchises, yet still trying to find roles that play to their strengths. Radcliffe’s transition from Harry Potter to Hammer House of Horror was a deft move, playing to many of the same strengths and yet distinguishing him from those family-friendly films. Pattinsondoes something similar here, playing to the same core archetype in a more mature setting.
Indeed, fans of Edward Cullen will find more than a few points of similarity between the vampire boyfriend and his role here. Playing Georges Duroy, Pattinson is still a sexual predator – an emotionally delicate young man keen to take advantage of women more naive than he is. In a wonderful overlap of archetypes, directors Donnellan and Ormerod chose to film one courtship sequence like a chase sequence from a horror film, as Duroy stalks the wife of an opponent through a church, trying to seduce her as petty revenge against her husband.
Bel Ami might be more overt in its sexual politics, but it does cover a lot of the same thematic ground as Pattinson’s iconic role – such as the notion of damaged relationships between damaged people – and I think it’s a smooth point of transition. I don’t subscribe to the idea thatPattinson is a weak actor, a piece of internet gospel that seems to spread around as part of the overwhelming Twilight hatedom. I don’t think that we have seen the actor given a script that plays to his strengths, and Bel Ami is easily the best project that I have seen him in to date – comfortably ahead of any of the Twilight adaptations, Remember Me or Water for Elephants.
That said, Pattinson still has to convince me that he will make a convincing leading man after the franchise evaporates, but Bel Ami provides relatively strong evidence in his favour. He has more to work with here, and is given a character with significant depth and complexity. Georges Duroy is a character driven by base desires, and inner resentment, and Pattinson manages to express these quite well. I’m not yet entirely sold, but if he can turn out another few performances like this, I think I could be converted.
The rest of the movie is solidly entertaining. Class drama is generally always fascinating – if only because it’s pretty much always relevant. Duroy’s struggle with his own independence is something that most of us will recognise and understand, and the movie deals with fairly broad social and political topics in a way that isn’t excessively intrusive. After all, the relationship between the media and government does seem quite timely at the moment, and I couldn’t help but imagine Colm Meaney was channelling Rupert Murdock as he declares, “I am more powerful than a king!”
That said, I can’t help but feel some of the political points are just a little bit behind the curve. As Barack Obama is in the middle of removing the United States from the Middle East, it seems like the script missed the window for relevance on the invasion subplot – as the media grapples with the French government’s planned invasion of Morocco. The movie leans rather heavily on the plot point, which makes it seem like the script was written when the build-up to the invasion of Iraq was taking place.
It’s a minor complaint, but the movie does suffer a bit from being rather episodic. It seems like Georges tends to face an individual crisis, and emerge from it to face another, rather than the plot threads developing organically and growing towards the climax. For example, we are only briefly introduced to a minor character in the first third of the film (she doesn’t have any lines, but appears playing the piano), only for her to suddenly become hugely important in the third. It might have flowed a bit better to develop all the threads along side one another, rather than deploying them one-at-a-time.
Still, these are minor complaints. This is undoubtedly Pattinson’s film, but he is ably supported. Uma Thurman’s accent grates slightly, but her performance as Duroy’s muse is perfectly solid. Christina Ricci is reliable as the girl he always seems to fall back on. And Kristen Scott-Thomas is as graceful as ever as a lonely old wife, whose husband never tells her that she’s beautiful anymore. Philip Glenister and Colm Meaney also make the most of relatively small supporting roles.
The production design looks lavish, beautifully evoking the period and setting, without ever self-consciously drawing attention to it. There are no gaudy establishing shots with landmarks or anything. Directors Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod have done an absolutely exceptional job converting the city of Budapest into a replica of Paris. I especially like the round notice boards, a very nice Parisian touch.
Bel Ami is a solid piece of period drama, with a solid central performance, and some interesting observations on gender relations. It doesn’t necessarily excel, but it breezes along quite nicely and is never less than solidly entertaining.
I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3