Bel Ami DVD Review
“Sexy, scandalous, sumptuous, sizzling and sexual”.
Before I’ve even pressed play, the press release for Bel Ami is beaming out an alliterative theme like the eye of Sauron in a red light district.
Armed with this bank of expectant assonance, I prepare myself for Maupassant’s explicit masterpiece as something akin to Lady Chatterley’s Lover or a Parisian Fifty Shades of Grey.
The opening scene sees a down-on-his-luck Georges Duroy, played by Robert Pattinson, bedraggled and dirty in darkness spare a meagre shard of light illuminating his decrepit and insect-infested room.
Almost immediately, we’re confronted with another image; that of a resplendent and powerful Duroy gliding through a lavish party. These two Georges’ juxtapose each other in a dichotomy of despondence and opulence, poverty and wealth.
Poverty, we are to find out, is a state from which Duroy will do anything to escape. This compulsion to progress upwards, and his fear of relapsing back to a life spent trying to scrape out some miserable scrap of existence, is Duroy’s raison d’etre.
From these humble, cockroach-companioned beginnings, Duroy manages to charm and manipulate his way up Paris’ social ladder through his friendships, flirtations and covert affairs with three of the most powerful women in the city.
Enter Uma Thurman as Madeleine Forestier, Christina Ricci as Clotilde de Marelle and Kristin Scott-Thomas as Virginie Rousset; a powerful triumvirate off screen, and the keepers of Duroy’s key to success.
The entire film is essentially an exploration of the tensions between men and women in nineteenth century France, and the differences between their private and public roles.
Public pomp and show paints men as the decision-makers, but Bel Ami reveals that these decisions stem from ideas carefully woven by their wives. Furthermore, it appears that women have a far greater level of independence and sexual prowess than their husbands would dare believe.
Forestier and de Marelle represent these women at their apex; the former paying for her clandestine love nest with Duroy as and the latter explicitly insisting on being free.
Bel Ami provides an intriguing role reversal of the typical rags-to-riches motif; a male Cinderella or Elijah Bennett.
Pattinson’s Duroy, for all his seduction and manipulation, is the needy poor-boy done good who’s reliant upon the pillow-whispers and soft-hand of friendship from a group of powerful women.
One scene between Forestier and Duroy graphically illustrates this dynamic, as she straddles her beau before holding him down by the neck. As he squirms and struggles beneath her strangling chokehold, the less than fair lady gets what she needs and climbs off.
For all Duroy’s wit and salacious social-climbing, he’s still out of his depth and a foreigner in the land of the rich.
The theme itself, old as time but never tiring, is what keeps Bel Ami going.
Or rather, it’s what kept my interest from all but packing its bags and heading off to watch Batman instead.
For all the engaging gender battles, beautiful costumes and lavish sets, it still felt as though there was something lacking.
There’s a parallel storyline around the invasion of Morocco that’s never really explained, making this seem like a plot device thrown in afterwards; giving the cast a few more toys to play with.
The final plan of Duroy’s races to fruition before I have time to blink, leaving me a little bemused and a lot more perplexed, with the climactic scene some farcical tableaux of the entire film.
Pattinson is good as Duroy, but he’s more little lost boy who’s just discovered his penis than the magnanimous, sexual predator the tagline would have you believe.
The biggest let down for me is Bel Ami’s failure to live up to its sexual hype. It’s an entertaining couple hours, but had I approached it without anticipating a sumptuous, Dangerous Liaisons-style costume drama some Daily Express hack christened this as, then maybe I’d have judged it with less of a “is that it?” thud.
Great as the cast may be, Bel Ami is more a toasty mug of spiced tea than a sizzling pit of lust.
Seraphina Trent D’Arby