Bel Ami is a name perhaps more familiar to many of us for a certain brand of shall we say gay ‘themed’ entertainment. But it’s also the name of a film staring heartthrob Robert Pattinson.
Instead of the Parisian newspapers of the 1880s, you could be forgiven for assuming director Declan Donnellan’s debut feature is about 21st Century gossip magazines, except for the clothes of course. Clothing to one side, Bel Ami, the feature in question, is really as timeless as they come.
A tale of greed, desire, adultery, double crossings, good luck and good looks, closing your eyes and picking any point in humanity’s timeline provides countless examples comparable to this story. Thankfully, because of their intrinsic relationship to our nature, the basic narrative totems don’t seem to grow old.The film centres on Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga), who returns home from the French Army after a spell fighting in Algeria.
At something of a crossroads in his life, and down to the last of his money, he moves to Paris with the hope of ‘making good’ in the capital. There he meets Charles Forestier, an older chap already acquainted in North Africa, who is also the political editor of La Vie Francaise, a paper with designs on bringing down the government.
At a high society dinner, the young hopeful is introduced to the most wealthy, powerful, and hedonistic of Parisian bigwigs. Forestier is hosting, and during the evening his wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman, Kill Bill) suggests Duroy’s memoirs should be published and offers assistance in the writing process. Instead, she ends up penning the diary herself, which goes on to become a great success with readers and earns Duroy a spot on the payroll at La Vie.
From here we follow Duroy as he rises up through the ranks of influence, despite an apparent lack of any true talent. His only real selling point is the ability to seduce, but that proves to be enough for him to succeed. As Madeleine explains, the most important people in Paris are not men, but their women, and Duroy takes this advice wholeheartedly on board. Bedding and wedding editors’ wives and their daughters, he manages to be exposed as a fraud, get fired, and wind up back in an even more powerful position.
It won’t ruin too much for you to learn that there’s little remorse and few repercussions for the womanising leading man. In fact, it’s probably more of a reason to watch the film, safe in the knowledge that, for all its costume drama posturing, this is wickedly appealing prospect for anyone who finds political correctness tiresome. With the moral values of a soap opera villain, he cuts a way through hearts in an attempt to protect himself from poverty – a plan that winds up securing him a hand in marriage, and a place alongside the finest of history’s Casanovas.