The latest fin de siècle costume melodrama, Bel Ami, presents us with an interesting question to ponder: who, exactly, is this movie for? The obvious answer starts with Robert Pattinson’s starring role: as he comes off of his Twilight tenure he needs to transition to more serious roles or risk his career fizzling out. He started in last year’s Water for Elephants, and this is as good a next step as any.
Now we must ask, why is Robert Pattinson in this movie? It’s certainly not for his acting skill; he’s not awful, but he has yet to show any real talent. And, to a large extent, it’s not needed here since things mostly happen to his character, and reacting is simpler than acting. No, the obvious reason is that he’s a draw; adolescent girls fawn over him as much as ever.
And this goes well with the story itself. Guy de Maupassant may be considered highbrow today but, like the works of Alexandre Dumas before, on its release in 1885 Bel Ami was quite the popular novel. In fact, it was a bodice-ripper — the 19th century equivalent of a Harlequin romance — following the dashing, young Georges Duroy (Pattinson) after his return to France from military service in Algeria, and his drive to escape his peasant upbringing in Normandy
Luckily he meets an acquaintance in Paris from his days in the service, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), who works now as the political editor of La Vie Française, a newspaper opposed to the current government and its plans to invade Morocco. Through Charles, he meets Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman) and her friend, Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci)., along with the paper’s publisher, Rousset (Colm Meany), and his wife, Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas). And what woman wouldn’t be charmed by a young former legionnaire, especially if he looks like Robert Pattinson?
Georges lands a job writing for the paper, though he does relatively little. On the occasion that he does write something, he is laughed out of the office as barely literate, but a word from Virginie gets his job back and a promotion, to boot. The sky seems to be the limit for a young man with ambition and a strong jaw.
Which brings us back to our question: is the movie really aimed at the young “Team Edward”? It certainly doesn’t have the marketing budget you’d expect from that. And what are we to make of the fact that the three love interests are all significantly older than Pattinson? No, the real target is a demographic of aging Twilight fans — older, lonely women fantasizing about the affections of a young, beautiful boy. Do they really exist in sufficient numbers to turn a profit from? I don’t know, but the producers certainly seem to think so.
Pattinson proves himself adequate to the low expectations imposed on him here. Ricci and Scott Thomas turn in solid, if familiar character work. Thurman is the real standout, though; Rachel Bennette’s script hands her plenty of scenery and she sets to chewing it with gusto. And really that’s what a costume melodrama like this is all about.
Worth It: if you’re a lonely old cat lady pining for Robert Pattinson, sure.
Bechdel Test: fail.