Bel Ami, a film by Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod (based on the 1885 novel of the same name by Guy de Maupassant), follows the story of Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson, Twilight series, Water for Elephants) in 1890s Paris. Duroy uses his good looks and powers of seduction to rise from povery to wealth. It is the story of politics, power, sex, and maybe even love.
Georges learns early on that it is the wives of France who hold the true power and he uses this knowledge to his advantage. A film that starts with an ex-solider living in a cockroach ridden apartment and begging to prostitutes for a night of pleasure, ends with a man who has passionately manipulated the wealthiest beauties in Paris. This is the directorial film debut for both Donnellan and Ormerod who have worked in theatre for over 30 years. Both were equally excited to bring this classic dark novel to the screen.
“Georges seduces powerful women high up in the French society, mostly connected with the newspaper industry. He uses sex and their huge attraction for him to get to the top of the pile. It’s an unremitting world and in the end he gets the lot. So there are no consequences for him,” explains Donnellan.
It truly is dark tale where the protagonist lacks morals. You are never sure whether to root for or against Georges and it is quite compelling to see the much-romanticized Pattinson in this role. His portrayal touches the core of human behavior and asks how far one is willing to go to get what they want.
We first meet this handsome soldier, who has just returned to Paris ragged and worn, in a saloon eyeing a prostitute and salivating over other men’s money and food. He runs into a fellow soldier from years before, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who takes pity on him and invites him to dine at his home the following evening. It is Forestier’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman) who is the first to offer her aid to the handsome soldier, suggesting he write a column for the paper, ‘the diary of a cavalryman’. Madeleine is stunningly beautiful, highly intelligent, and fiercely independent and we get the sense from the beginning that she is the genius behind her husband and any man that crosses her path. It is no shock to us that when her husband later passes of tuberculosis she marries Georges yet coyly keeps her ongoing Tuesday affairs with her male companion Comte de Vaudrec (Anthony Higgins). We easily see through Georges reasoning for the marriage- money, stature, convenience. But the surprise of Madeleine’s character is that she is equally manipulative and Georges is just a pawn in her political game. In this time, women may not have been allowed to write for the paper or hold office, but it is clear who really has control. “I did not realize the death of your emptiness,” she tells Georges in a compelling betrayal scene, though we can’t help but wonder who is more empty.
Then there is Clotilde, the ravishingly playful socialite embodied by Christina Ricci, who becomes Georges mistress and probably only true companion. Her husband is often away on business and she spends “her money on something that makes her happy” a love nest for her and Georges for their clandestine rendezvous. She is the one that knows Georges best and gives the audience a glimpse into his softer side. However, even she is scorned by his ability to thwart love for greed. “I will not live like my father, a peasant. I can not”, he tells her as he breaks the news of his marriage to another. Clotilde’s charming daughter is the one that aptly names Georges ‘Bel Ami’, after he woes even a child with a game of tag. But it is Clotilde’s childlike innocence that finds this hopeless romantic by his side throughout.
Finally, Georges eyes the demure and highly regarded wife of Monsieur Rousset (Colm Meaney, the editor of La Vie Francaise (French Newspaper). Madame Rousset (Kristen Scott Thomas) strays for the first time in her marriage when Georges seduces her (in a church, no less!). Her obsession with Georges and betrayal of her husband eventually leads to the house of cards coming down and perhaps her biggest faux paus. Georges plays his last chess move and it is check mate when he charms Rousset’s youngest daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger) and makes her his child bride to ensure his survival.
The story is filled with complex female characters, strong and manipulative, yet vulnerable and these veteran actresses do them justice. We are never quite sure who is taking advantage of who in this film, but we always mange to care. The backdrop of a society where women are second class citizens and the newspaper is as powerful as the government adds to this tension.
Despite being a period piece, there are parallels to be made to today’s modern society- the manipulation of the media; a government planning to invade an Arab nation for their natural resources and masking their intentions to their own people; the ability for someone to climb to the top of celebrity with very little actual skill.
But the key to this film’s success are the levels we see in Georges. Screenwriter Rachel Bennette explains the difficulties bringing this character to life. “Georges is a difficult character and that’s what makes him so fascinating. He’s quite enigmatic in a certain respects and he’s not a typical character in many ways. He’s very reactive as opposed to the active protagonist that you’re used to. So it was a question of trying to get the measure of him…I find Georges really compelling even if I don’t always like him. There’s something about his audacity, and his daring, and his absolute refusal to be told his place. And there is something quite appealing about that: essentially it is a kind of mad courage that he has.”
Donnellan concurs, “He never works and he still gets it all. That’s what’s so maddening about Georges Duroy. He gets the lot with no effort and it’s something we have to live with. Georges has a talent to get to the top and he’s a businessman with one commodity to sell. Another thrilling thing about Georges is his emptiness; people can project anything into him which is another reason why he’s so successful.”
Georges likability comes in that we can relate to his desire to live life and capture every opportunity before death takes each of us. It is a story of facing your immortality and doing what you must to achieve success and happiness along the way. This common thread played subtly through Pattinson’s performance outweighs his characters more despicable attributes so that the audience does empathize with him, perhaps even overlooks his vile behavior. He is at once both the protagonist and antagonist, and Pattinson delivers a solid performance.
Perhaps I too was seduced by Georges; I certainly fell under the spell of Bel Ami.
Bel Ami opens June 8th, watch the trailer.