Bel Ami is an adaptation of a Maupassant novel that seems to want to be a fin de siecle equivalent to Dangerous Liaisons but ends up curiously lifeless and uninvolving. Robert Pattinson, current go-to guy for all things smouldering and glowering, has the star role as discharged soldier Georges Duroy, whose unpromising prospects in the whore-infested bars of Moulin Rouge era Paris are considerably improved when he falls into the orbit of his former comrade-in-arms Forestier, now an editor at an influential newspaper and a man of impressive means. Duroy is initially beguiled by Forestier’s high-mindedly independent wife, who introduces him to her circle of friends, which appears to consist mainly of the bored wives of important men looking for some light thrills. Duroy worms his way into the hearts of various women while at the same time rising upwards in status at the newspaper without ever demonstrating much effort or talent, and needless to say there are certain personal and professional comeuppances lying in wait for him.
There’s nothing obviously terrible about the film, but there’s not a great deal to hold your attention either. Someone’s gone to some trouble to assemble authentic looking costumes and set dressings, but you never really believe you’re looking at anything other than actors in mocked-up parlours laboriously explaining the plot and their emotional states to each other. Pattinson certainly looks the part, but doesn’t show much in the way of charm, and neither do any of the women he seduces, although it is interesting to see Kristin Scott Thomas in an uncharacteristically submissive role. It is possible to make a good period film where the protagonist is essentially a jammy doofus (prime example: Barry Lyndon) but they certainly haven’t pulled it off here. It also doesn’t help that, where a milieu like this would seem to call for a bit of directorial sweep and flair, the film’s shot and edited like a TV drama, with very conventional back-and-forth cutting between the speakers in every conversation scene and few establishing shots and bold camera moves to exploit the lush environments. There are some pretty nasty and sordid things happening in this story which could provide real moments of shock and disgust but the film-makers always seem to be selling them short and failing to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the source material. Still, if you like top hats, side burns and big dresses this might be up your street.