Last night, I went to a preview screening of Bel Ami at the Soho Hotel in London. After waiting two years since the filming for its release, I was quite looking forward to it, though based on the not-so-overwhelming critical response to it my hopes weren't up exceedingly high, and that turned out to be quite a good thing. Also, as readers know, I make no secret of the fact I'm quite the Robert Pattinson fan, but I'm at least trying to be unbiased.
In 1890s Paris, penniless ex-soldier Georges Duroy (Pattinson) has a chance encounter with Charles Forestiere (Philip Glenister), a fellow ex-soldier who sets him up writing articles about his time in Algeria despite him being barely literate. He soon begins a career as a journalist and slowly he begins to climb the social ladder via the seduction of the wives of powerful men (including Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristen Scott Thomas), and begins his quest for wealth and notoriety, at whatever cost.
I'll start off with my main issue with the film, which is why it wasn't French. It was based on a French book by a French author with French characters and set in Paris, so it didn't really make sense to me why they made it with a British/American cast and crew whilst keeping all the same French elements. The British accents with French pronunciations became quite grating rather quickly which put a dampener on things, and really you just forget the film is meant to be set in Paris.
Saying that, the acting wasn't terrible; most of the cast gave acceptable if not stellar performances. I have to say that I'm disappointed that this wasn't released before Pattinson's previous work, Water for Elephants, which was filmed afterwards, released sooner and showed a much better performance from him. I'm afraid that this makes it seem like his acting talent has gone downhill, whereas in fact if his work is seen in chronological order of filming it is easy to see the improvement in his skills. Still, he was convincing as a ruthless womaniser, and successfully made the character detestable, which I think was the aim at least, and he has proved that he can play a complex character well. Even though this wasn't his best performance, it gives a taste of what he is capable of, even if he did go a bit overboard with the facial expressions at times. I'm looking forward to seeing him in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, his next post-Twilight attempt, to see what he can do under the guidance of a well-respected and established director.
The supporting cast were also mostly good. Uma Thurman gave a credible if dismissable performance as Duroy's love interest and later-wife, a woman who is the brains behind her husband, and her British accent is very believable. It's Christina Ricci who is the surprise talent here, giving her best performance for years (as long as you ignore the shrill giggling). Her character Clotilde's relationship with Duroy is one of the best things in the whole film, and she becomes one of the most interesting characters as ultimately she is the only person Duroy actually cares about. Their scenes together are fun and the chemistry is great, and Ricci plays the part stunningly well.
But there were also problems with the cast. Kristen Scott Thomas, usually a reliable actress, was convincing only for the first half in which she didn't really feature heavily, but as soon as Duroy captures the attention of her vulnerable aging socialite Virginie, she turns into a complete mess, and it's not entirely clear if her clingy and pathetic behaviour is supposed to be that ridiculous or whether it just comes across that way. The uncertainty annoyed me more than if it was a straight-up bad performance, but it actually became hysterical, if not for the right reasons. Philip Glenister, though, I can safely say was terrible. I've not seen huge amounts of his other work, but from what I have seen he's given no indication that he has any talent whatsoever, and this performance just cements that opinion. His character was also horrid, and I actually forgave Duroy for his despicable behaviour towards him because of this. Natalia Tena (Harry Potter) was also forgettable, and her prostitute character served merely as a catalyst for an argument between Clotilde and Duroy. (Side note, if anyone saw her on the Sky Movies Oscars coverage this year you'll understand why I struggled to contain laughter every time she popped up on screen.) And Holliday Grainger was beyond irritating. She contributed nothing to the film at all except as a plot device, and really the little she did act was not convincing at all.
I will definitely say that the producers know how to cater for their audience. They clearly knew that this would appeal to the older Twilight fans, and they delivered on the extensive use of Robert Pattinson. He's in every scene and... shall we say, does things we haven't seen from him yet: within the first ten minutes there's a shot of his naked backside and the whole of the first third of the film is basically him whoring around. Still, it's nice to see him diversifying in his acting and taking on a challenge, and it's lovely to hear him acting with his English accent for the first time in a very long time. That being said, this isn't for Twilight fans. He's a villain who Robert Pattinson himself described as "amoral", which really couldn't sum up the character better. He's manipulative, merciless and definitely not a hero in any sense of the word. People who are essentially watching this to see what we didn't see in Breaking Dawn (i.e. any actual sex) will be disappointed if they are expecting any romance, because these are emotionally cold encounters even if they physically smoulder.
The film is good though with its mix of drama and comedy, even if the intentionally funny moments are overshadowed by the unintentional parts, which become more frequent towards the end of the film. However, I think the problems essentially lie in the actual production side. The screenplay was drab, which is a major issue. This film could have been so relevant to today's issues with the newspapers and journalists, as it's supposed to deal with the backhand dealings of politics and the media, but really it just isn't as hard-hitting as it could be and that means the film lacks any real impact; it basically just chooses to focus instead on the romantic relationships between the characters rather than exploring the impact of these interactions. The direction wasn't great either. It seemed that Nick Ormerod and Declan Donnellan didn't have a lot of control over the performances, and because they don't appear to have reigned any of them in when the majority needed to be, they did descend almost into the ridiculous towards the end. If they perhaps had directed the actors better then the subtlety would have made for a better film. I can probably count on one hand how many films have been well-received that have been directed by two people, it doesn't tend to end well. On the other hand, the costumes by Odile Dicks-Mireaux were beautiful, as were the sets, and they gave the film an authenticity that it perhaps lacked in other aspects. Also to be praised is the score, which reflected the film perfectly and was just right, enough to notice it and its contribution to certain scenes, but not enough to distract from the action. It's one I shall definitely be downloading when it finally gets released.
Now I have to say this, and it's hard for me to do. Robert Pattinson was not attractive in this. I'm not sure if it was deliberately to reflect Duroy's poverty and the way he rose to fame, or to show his ugly personality, but despite his looks, he appears dirty and greasy a lot of the time, even when he's rich and well dressed. The poster is the best he looks as his character, and even that has been doctored. However, his character was interesting enough though that I overlook this. Duroy's complete lack of remorse, his greediness and selfishness, and the fact he gets no comeuppance add to the complexity of his character, and it's refreshing to see a character in film that is so dastardly and doesn't get justice. It's nice to see something other than a predictable storyline where the character has an epiphany and is changed, or is ruined and loses everything so that balance is restored. This is one of the only parts that I feel reflects the book and tells the story of a man who will do anything to get power and gets away with it.
Verdict: All in all, it was a disappointment. A stellar cast is let down by poor direction and a less-than-worthy script, even though most of them do the best with what they have. Considering I am a fan of Rob, and because I've waited for two years for this film to be released, it was an anticlimax. My suggestion is to go into this film with low expectations and it turns out ot be much more enjoyable. I'd recommend seeing it becase it is an interesting storyline, even if it's not as challenging as it has the potential to be, but I don't think any of the aspects of this film were as good as they could be, and if they were then it would have been much better overall. Christina Ricci gives her best performance for years and we do get to a glimpse at what Robert Pattinson can do even if he isn't fulfilling his whole potential here and ends up going a bit overboard in his attempt to showcase his talent.