From behind, we watch a man in ragged clothes look longingly through the window of a fancy Belle Epoque Parisian restaurant. Inside, richly attired women whisper secrets over brimful glasses of champagne and decadent platters laden with food. Later, the hungry man in his mean garret relives the moment, jealousy and bitterness at the injustice of his situation playing across his face, before the memory of such opulence actually makes him cry. It’s a convincing, well-observed moment that sets up a lot of what we need to know about the man’s character. Oh wait, did we mention the man is played by Robert Pattinson?
“Bel Ami,” Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod‘s adaptation of the acerbic Guy de Maupassant novel, features a starry cast in some wonderful costuming, and follows the fortunes of ambitious Georges Duroy (Pattinson) as he ruthlessly climbs his way up the social ladder of 1890s Paris, using little but his talents at seduction. It quite speaks to the level of stardom the “Twilight” films have brought the young actor that, in amongst a cast that features Uma Thurman, Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott-Thomas, really the burning question is: What is Pattinson like? Will he convert his detractors (unlikely) or cool the ardor of his vocal fan base (probably impossible)?
The truth is, sadly, that the promising opening detailed above is the high point of the film from the point of view of Pattinson’s performance. He is not terrible by any means, and we were really trying to like him in the role for a long time, but eventually his twitchiness, which seems like a factor of inexperience and nervousness, unites with script and characterisation problems to alienate us from his role in a way that has nothing to do with the character’s nastiness. It is as though Pattinson hasn’t yet gained the confidence on camera to do less, and so in his many closeups there is always one too many things going on — the nostril flare coupled with the eye twitch along with the twist of the mouth becomes an overwhelming cavalcade of tics when your face is thirty feet high. It’s one of the reasons why we can never forget in this film that Pattinson is Acting; he feels like he is wearing the character like a suit of clothes or a layer of makeup, rather than inhabiting him. Yes, we’re going home to find a horse’s head in our bed tonight, aren’t we? But while he is not there yet, we have to say that there’s no reason that Pattinson, in the hands of a director more experienced with the demands of film than theater (the debut directors here have a background in theatre and perhaps have not quite appreciated just how much the movie camera acts as a performance magnifying glass), shouldn’t turn in a better, more understated performance. After all, in the one “Twilight” film this writer has seen to date, we seem to recall he does a lot less, and he has been accused of woodenness before. If he just splits the difference between that and this…
Ok, phew, so now that that’s put of the way we can talk about the rest of the film, and from this perspective it’s clear that not all issues we outline above can be laid solely at Pattinson’s door. In fact, when you see even the stalwart uber-reliable Kristin Scott-Thomas devolve from her usual committed and natural-as-breathing style into something far more histrionic and, well, bigger, you realize that there are problems built into the screenplay and the directorial approach. Uma Thurman, too, seems to go large and scattily theatrical through discomfort; there is a very modern-feeling neurotic edge to Thurman as an actress that does not suit the coolly intelligent character she plays. Of the women, Christina Ricci really does the most convincing work: her Clothilde feels entirely real and yet also entirely of her time, and she seems wholly invested in her role as maybe the one woman who both loves and understands what Georges is.