Tuesday, 21 February 2012
'Bel Ami' Berlinale (Out of Competition) review:
I'm actually pretty conflicted as to how to feel about 'Bel Ami', an intermittently effective and highly sexed adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's 19th century novel co-directed by British theatre directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod. It's a little verbose in places and features either too much or too little of the book's politics (I'm not sure which), yet it's pretty enough to look at and features some cracking supporting actors. In it 'Twilight' star Robert Pattinson takes the central role of Georges Duroy - an ambitious and spiteful man who rises Barry Lyndon-style from poverty to the pinnacle of Parisian high-society through self-delusion and amorality.
For the first half-hour I sat convinced that Pattinson had been miscast: aside from looking a little too young for a war veteran (one whose peers all seem to be middle aged), Pattinson's permanent snarl and the infinite emptiness of his eyes seem to make a mockery of the fact that his character inspires so much amorous affection - even if we're well aware he engenders this reaction from the ladies off-camera. Yet this seems to be precisely the point, making Pattinson an inspired choice: the ladies like Georges because he is pretty, but actually he is an empty vessel. Lazy, petty, illiterate, lacking social graces and disloyal, French high-society assumes something lies behind his eyes that simply isn't there. The jury is out on whether Pattinson has much range as an actor, but he makes for an oddly compelling Georges.
Precipitating his ascent is Madeleine (Uma Thurman), the highly politicised wife of a newspaper man, who writes several influential articles in his name, lending him a vicarious sense of power and significance. Madeleine is the fiercely independent power behind the scenes in a society that doesn't openly covert the political opinions of women. Georges also seduces the wife of another member of the upper-crust, bedding Clotilde (an especially ravishing Christina Ricci) - being supremely casual with her affections in spite of her unending support and faith in him. Later Georges takes yet another lover in Madame Walter (an underused Kristen Scott-Thomas), a joyless older woman whom he beds simply in order to spite her husband, his business rival (Colm Meaney).
Georges is a man of few talents, yet he feels a sense of entitlement, harbouring bitter resentment against those in whom he perceives slights. This story of a deeply unsympathetic character, potentially doomed to unhappiness by his own limitless pursuit of status, is interesting and so is the film. Though 'Bel Ami' is also heavy-handed - peppered with cumbersome dialogue spoken by actors affecting rigid British accents in an attempt to play French characters - and overly glossy, shying away from showing much of the poverty that is ultimately to power Georges' desperate longing to move up in the world, whatever the cost to his personal happiness. Arguably, with its emphasis on finely embroidered corsets and shots of Pattinson's bum, the film is as superficial and self-important as its protagonist.