Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel Ami has been adapted for the stage and screen multiple times—most memorably in 1947, in a movie starring George Sanders and Angela Lansbury. The novel’s appeal is obvious: It explores the social strata of 19th-century Paris by showing an ambitious scoundrel hopping from bed to bed. But given the era when the book was written, and given when its best-known adaptations were made, most Bel Amis have had to imply a lot, being coy about what’s really happening in those private chambers. So for the new adaptation, directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod and screenwriter Rachel Bennette try to take more advantage of the freedoms of modern cinema, making sure that their Bel Ami has plenty of sex and straight talk. The result is almost a test case for whether explicitness is a virtue.
The verdict? Inconclusive. This new Bel Ami has a lot to recommend it, but it never seems as artful or smart as Dangerous Liaisons, the film it most resembles. Part of the problem is the lead. Robert Pattinson plays the rake, an ex-soldier who takes a job as a newspaper columnist and advances in his career thanks to his relationships with three aristocratic women (played by Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Christina Ricci). Pattinson is meant to seem overmatched—dim, inexperienced, and emasculated—but even by the movie’s standards, he seems like too much of a lightweight, as he’s struggling with which knife to use at a formal dinner, or writhing in obvious pain beneath a sexed-up Thurman. On the whole, this Bel Ami proves better at light drawing-room machinations than heavier political and romantic drama.
Still, the movie is frequently assured as it depicts how a man with no discernible skills works his way up from whorehouses to elegant estates, simply by virtue of being handsome. Early on, especially, Donnellan, Ormerod, and Bennette get across how literally and metaphorically hungry their hero is, and how the Paris around him has so much money that it can afford to squander it on a young man with nothing to offer beyond his strategic value in a larger social game. And while Bel Ami loses its steam, the more it becomes about Pattinson selling his soul to social-climb, this version is franker than most about how inconvenient human feelings can trip up even sophisticated Parisians.