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Review: Bel Ami (2012)

Bel Ami (2012)

Directed by: Declan Donnellan & Nick Ormerod

Premise: Set in Paris in the 1890s, a penniless soldier (Robert Pattinson) climbs the social ladder by seducing wealthy women.

What Works: Bel Ami is a satisfying story about ambition, greed, and corruption. The film has a strong central performance by Robert Pattinson, who is a better actor than the Twilight films have allowed him to demonstrate. In Bel Ami, Pattinson plays a character who has moments of earnestness and goodness but whose integrity is compromised by his ambition. The film also has strong supporting performances by Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci as two of the lovers that Pattinson’s character takes. These women have distinct relationships with him, each with her own dynamic and expectations, making the sexual politics of Bel Ami very interesting. Pattinson’s character is a hustler but the film does not simply retread fantasies of sexual conquest or romantic escapism. The sexual relationships between Pattinson’s character and his female lovers are based on political calculations but are also fraught with emotional turmoil. In some respects, Bel Ami upends many of the clichés and conventions of this kind of story and it suggests how power and greed may corrupt sexuality and ruin human relationships.

What Doesn’t: Bel Ami is a costume drama and it suffers from some of the flaws common to this kind of film. One of the major conceits of costume and period pieces is that they maintain a classy and staid tone. Like the polite society that they usually portray, these films are often sterile and overly mannered and avoid uncouth or seedy content. This becomes a problem for Bel Ami in a number of ways. First, the film is dramatically flat. There are few ups and downs to the main character’s story and although his corruption is gradual there isn’t much internal or external conflict. By comparison with The Devil Wears Prada, which is a modern version of this same kind of story, that film told the story of a character who enters a demanding and high class world and in pursuit of her goals finds her integrity at risk. That kind of conflict is never realized in Bel Ami and as the story moves through the main character’s various love affairs there is a lack of passion or desire that would make the story involving. This leads to the other problem of Bel Ami which is its lack of sexiness. Despite the fact that this is a movie about sexual relationships there is little in the film that is carnal or erotic. In some cases that is the point, but overall the film keeps sexuality at bay even while it is integral to the story.  More broadly, this same flaw is also true of the movie’s emotional range, which is very narrow. There are a few moments in which the filmmakers of Bel Ami do allow the actors to go for the big dramatic moments but when they do the film gets wobbly or silly and overcompensates with overly dramatic line readings by the actors. Bel Ami also has a lot of problems with its exposition. In the background of the main character’s seductions are political machinations involving the French government’s occupation of Morocco. The filmmakers aim for a parallel between the deceit and manipulation of Pattinson’s character and the political goings-on but it is unclear who the characters are or what they want and the whole subplot falls flat.

Bottom Line: Bel Ami is a mixed effort. The movie will appeal to viewers of Lifetime network movies but it is missing the passion and heat that would really make the film work.

Episode: #393 (June 24, 2012)