It must be awfully frustrating for Robert Pattinson and everyone involved in movies with him to be hamstrung by studios that want to take advantage of his Twilight fan base. There's no other explanation for this fangless adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's classic novel, about a mercenary young lad who beds society ladies for political leverage. Oh, and because he can.
As Georges Duroy, the titular bel ami, Pattinson skulks, sulks, and glowers his way through Paris in the 19th century. The dirt poor, former solider runs into a comrade from the war who is now a powerful newspaper editor; Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who takes pity on the filthy drunk, tosses him a few gold pieces, and invites him to dinner. Madeleine Forestier is the brain behind the operation, and she advises Duroy to cozy up to the other society ladies, as they're the ones with the real power. Duroy gets a gig writing a column for the newspaper, which Madeleine actually writes for him, and his career as a professional grifter begins.
The plot of Bel Ami revolves around the political environment of France just before its invasion of Morocco as much as it does Duroy's love affairs. It's a major motivating factor for many of the characters, one that has been watered down or edited out to the point where it's almost an afterthought. This takes away a lot of the urgency and the sort of backstabbing deliciousness that one would expect from a piece like this. The stakes aren't that high until near the end, when they come to a sudden head. Before that, the story was meandering between Duroy's dalliances with a married woman and how he's scamming the newspaper.
Christina Ricci plays Duroy's lover Clotilde, one of Madeleine's friends, and although she's married, there's no weight to the affair other than to show the supposedly sexy sex that has been both part of the movie's hype and, it would seem, its main marketing problem. Marketing problems are relevant here because they generally mean more and more edits are made until what was once a coherent movie becomes a confusing mishmash through little fault of those directly involved.
Their scenes are moderately steamy for an R-rated movie. They're obviously not appropriate for his so-called fan base, but it's obvious that even before the Twilight franchise was nearing its run that Pattinson wanted to take a stab at actual acting. Although Duroy is a sh*t, it seems unlikely that the final cut of the film is all that true to the book or even the vision of those involved.
That's a shame, since Bel Ami looks lovely even if it comes off as occasionally goofy. Ricci is beautiful but her character is banal. The men are all fairly interchangeable cigar-smoking society types or ink-stained writers. The most memorable thing about Uma Thurman's performance is how elegantly she smokes her cigarettes and how she treats Duroy's lovemaking as if it were less interesting than a fly landing on her arm. As one of the society women that Duroy beds as part of his scheming, Kristin Scott Thomas goes from a typically no-nonsense married lady to a mewling quim. Pattinson can't seem to find the right balance between rage and sweetness; it's actually impossible to tell who he's in love with, when, or why until he bursts out with statements like, "I was the one getting f*cked!" Or was the audience?