In the right hands, the works of literary figure Guy De Maupassant are fodder for great cinematic achievements, especially considering that Jean-Luc Godard and Max Ophuls credit some of their best titles to the French author (not to mention an excellent 1934 classic of Mexican cinema, The Woman of the Port). But let’s not forget that Maupassant is first and foremost regarded as one of the fathers of the modern short story. Newcomers Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod have chosen to adapt one of Maupassant’s few novels for their debut, Bel Ami, a text that’s been adapted before in several languages (and once before in the US as The Private Affairs of Bel Ami with George Sanders and Angela Lansbury, 1947). An unwise choice for their first outing, considering its lack of character development and overall coherence suggest that the essence of the original material didn’t translate into Rachel Bennette’s sputtering screenplay, and becomes another glistening example of how most filmmakers have no idea how to adeptly adapt classic literature for the cinema.
From soldier to street urchin, life has been nothing but a scraped together existence for Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson), a typical member of the lower classes in 1890’s
England France. Recently released from military service, he stumbles upon an old comrade, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) one night. His old friend takes pity on Duroy’s measly existence, inviting him to his home for dinner. There, Duroy meets three beautiful socialites—Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman), brilliant wife to his friend, Clotilde (Christina Ricci), a married mother with a husband often away, and the buttoned up Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), whose husband runs the political newspaper for which Forestier works. Per Madeleine’s suggestion, Duroy is given a job as a columnist documenting a ‘diary of a soldier’ concept at the paper, which she helps him pen. Madeleine also advises the young scrounger that he can easily bed Clotilde and that by winning the affections of Virginie, he can secure permanence at the paper, which is aiming to take down the current French government over plans to seize Morocco. Duroy gladly acts on her advice, as she tells him “It’s not the men of Paris that have all the power—it’s their wives!” But as Duroy gains more and more power and significant social standing through using his bevy of beauties, he realizes that his greed and lust for power makes him no different than the exquisite social class he despises.
Sadly, Bel Ami runs over Maupassant’s text like the caterwaul of a noisy treadmill endlessly spinning makeshift gears, hopelessly trying to distract us from its creaky cogs and bolts. While the dolorous screenplay is a leaden lump, and Donnellan and Ormerod seem to have no idea as to how an orchestral score should enhance what’s going on visually and not swamp it, the real cancerous killer of Bel Ami is a stiff and rigid performance from Robert Pattinson. He’s certainly no stranger to intelligence defying material, and he seems to think that his charming Coffin Joe grin and squinty visage are enough to glide over moments he’s obviously not being directed through. Consequently, he comes across as awkwardly uncomfortable, his forced grimaces often heralding other stagey emotions meant to convey Duroy’s unprecedented lack of finesse. Instead, this only proves that Pattinson and his co-directors lack any sort of stratagem, at least with this material. There’s no energy with this performance—it’s a putrid, bloated corpse floating to the top of a goldfish bowl holding captive a flurry of beautiful actresses.
Certainly, our three leading ladies all fare considerably better than Pattinson (though, like other “French” adaptations, such as Stephen Frear’s 2009 Cheri, where the very American Michelle Pfeiffer joyfully but distractingly calls her amour by his very French nickname quite abundantly), we have Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas reduced to referring to their Don Juan as Bel Ami (which means ‘good friend’), which only happens to jar us further from the proceedings every time it happens. Both Ricci and Thomas are fine, their American and British accents making this seem like a Pan-European tale, but hey, they do what they’re supposed to. The best performance happens to come from Uma Thurman, though she’s sucked down here much like Jessica Lange’s neglected performance in the 1998 Balzac adaptation, Cousin Bette. Looking stunning with her honey blonde hair and glowing skin, Thurman resorts to a throaty growl that ends up in Tallulah Bankhead territory more than once. Her best scene, where she furiously bitches out her platitudinous husband Duroy, has her referring to him as nothing but a dumb animal. Not only is she blazingly good, but her performance points out the lack of Pattinson’s—he’s supposed to be an angry, vengeful cretin, but that characterization is nowhere in sight. Guy De Maupassant, an expert craftsman of the short story, known for his brilliant flashes of naturalism and realism, here lies butchered on the silver screen in one bloated, unnatural, unrealistic adaptation of his work. But hey, what are friends for?