Although I enjoyed this more than I expected, and although most of the characters are well acted, the settings impressive and the plot intriguing (based on a Guy de Maupassant novel from 1885), it does have one major problem. And that is the main character - or rather, the actor who plays Bel Ami - aka Georges Duroy. The man with the teeth, Robert Pattinson.
It's not the actor I'm criticising so much as the decision to cast that actor in this role. Duroy is meant to be a French soldier who has fought in North Africa, and through sheer persistence and sexual charisma, wins his way up through French society via the beds of beautiful and successful women. He is, above all, a man, however dodgy his morals may be. Pattinson is 25 years old, does not look as though he has been in the army, and does not send sexual shivers down the spines of older women. Teenagers, possibly, but there's only one of those in the film.
Indeed the women upon whom he practises his wicked ways are of an altogether better calibre. Reading from left to right, there is the divine Clotilde (Christina Ricci), a long way from Beetlejuice, and whose only request is that he doesn't bring other women to their love nest; next is Madeleine (Uma Thurman), whose husband, a fellow officer, gives Georges his first break. And Uma has improved both as an actress and as a beautiful woman; finally there is Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the newspaper proprietor for whom Georges works. This is an impressive trio, and frankly Mr Pattinson is not fit to shave their legs.
My main complaint is his smile. He has this queasy, uneasy smile that may or not be ironic, but since it is the only smile he has, it's impossible to tell what he's feeling - joy, lust, anxiety, irritation or gastric flu. And he simply doesn't look old or worldly enough to be so irresistible. He pouts and frowns (and smiles, of course), and tells us that he wants to climb out of the poverty into which he was born, but frankly, he doesn't look like someone who was born into poverty, and equally, it's impossible to believe that he has the hunger to do whatever it takes to get to the top.
As I said, for me it's a casting decision, not an acting problem. Putting my money where my mouth is, I'd suggest that Tom Hiddleston would have been ideally cast. That much older, while still youthful looking, handsome, dangerous, vulnerable, and able to pull off a role that requires us to want him to succeed while seeing that he is a heartless bastard. As Madeleine discovers, rather too late, Georges has no hidden depths, and possibly no hidden shallows either. But casting a shallow actor to play a shallow character doesn't work; you need an actor of substance to convey that superficiality.
Moving on to the positives, there is an element here of Dangerous Liaisons, power politics via the bedroom, French style, and as I say, the three actresses are terrific in their different ways. Scott Thomas plays against type as a needy woman whose first foray into infidelity leaves her unprepared for rejection, rather like Madame de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons. Loving a man like Duroy is a sure way to misery. Ricci has matured a lot since her days as a child star, and combines a sweetness, a sexuality and a certainty that is impressive, while Thurman manages to show us a woman who is smart, individual, and determined, though she makes a fatal misjudgement in thinking that Georges can be forged in the heat of her political intellect.
French society in the fin de siecle always has a certain je ne sais quoi, and the absence of any Can can is a great relief. Fans of Pattinson will obviously enjoy this more, and I congratulate him on continuing to find interesting films post-Twiight, but I'm not sure that period drama is his cup of tea, especially a film that requires so much more of him than is readily available.
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