Starring Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas.
There's a moment in Bel Ami, a costume drama set in 1890 Paris, when Madelaine Forestier (Uma Thurman), a wealthy and talented woman with ties to the press and to the government, speaks out in defiance to Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson). "I had no conception of the depths of your emptiness," she says. "There is nothing there." A viewer might find themselves saying the same thing to the film as it nears its end.
Pattinson plays a dissolute soldier returning from the war in Algiers. At a kind of dancehall/brothel Georges bumps into an old comrade, now a newspaper tycoon, who gives him money for a new suit. As Georges' old army buddy tells him, "Paris is filthy with money; even the whores are getting rich." He invites him to dinner, where Georges meets his friend's wife (played by Thurman), and two other wealthy and prominent wives (played by Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci). It's a rags-to-riches story with period costumes, top hats, corsets, carriages, lots of heaving bosoms, plenty of sex and scenes of nightlife that look like bad Toulouse-Lautrec.
Through the encouragement of the women on hand, Georges pens a series of columns called "The Diary of a Cavalry Soldier." These are entirely fictionalized accounts dictated by Madelaine, who is given the job of helping Georges. She helps him with more than just his writing, imparting her wisdom about French society: "The most important people in Paris are not the men," she says. "The most important people are their wives." (These Parisians all have British accents.)
And so the story unfolds — or lurches, or skips in disjointed schizoid snippets, depending on your sense of things. It's a war of the sexes. And Georges always seems like a cross between Heathcliff and Dracula (even if you've never seen Twilight). Pattinson's heart-throb appeal must explain the logic of having him bed all of the female characters — old, young, prostitute and aristocrat. There's a lot of fin-de-siecle fornicating. This is not a love triangle; the geometry gets more complex than that. It's either a three-dimensional love pyramid or perhaps a more lopsided love-polygon. The film can't decide if it wants to be dark drama or bedroom farce. It fails as both.
And all the gestures of sex don't salvage the story. In between the romance, there's some muddled business about overthrowing the government, troop placements in Morocco, and overseas grain shipments. Characters die — there's some gross 19th-century-consumptive-style bloody coughing. Fortunes are inherited. Marriages are made and betrayed. It seems that Georges, though he's screwing half of Paris, is basically being used so that his writing will further some dark political motive that he — and, for the most part, we — can't understand.
Bel Ami is one of those movies that spends too much energy conjuring a vanished past. The effort is wasted on a story that doesn't justify or explain the overwrought but hollow passions it depicts.
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