For many, of course, the main reason to see this will be star Robert Pattinson. He certainly doesn’t disappoint, but largely because he knows how to play an unlikeable character well, and it’s anyone’s guess how fans will react to that. He’s often shirtless, of course, because all young Georges – the bel ami of the title – has to sell when he arrives in Paris is his body. But Georges isn’t looking to scrape a living on the streets. The other thing he possesses is ambition. By seducing rich women, he fancies he might find a means of manipulating rich men and climbing up the social ladder.
It’s a popular conceit, and Georges is completely, hopelessly wrong – wide open to being taken advantage of by women far more sophisticated than he is – but it’s how he comes to recognise this, and adapt, despite his limited intelligence and lack of any real talent, that makes up the meat of the film. Because Pattinson isn’t afraid to play weakness, mediocrity or petty spite, he is perfect in the role, less romantic hero than would-be Bullingdon boy. His ability to keep the audience interesed in his fate despite this illustrates real talent.
Then there are the women. Cast against type, they are scarcely recognisable. There’s Christina Ricci as the playful, smitten Clothilde; Kristen Scott Thomas as fragile older woman Virginie; and Uma Thurman as the formidable Madeleine. One cannot help but recall her vulnerable Cecile in Dangerous Liaisons; here she is all grown up, no less desirable, but with much more in common with Laclos’ Marguise de Meurteuil. Each woman gives it her all, seemingly relishing the chance to do something different. Wages for this film were apparently low – everyone was doing it for love, and it shows. This is a fantastic chance to see some of the industry’s greatest talents at the top of their game.