An adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's scandalous novel, starring Robert Pattinson as a young man who seduces his way into the upper echelons of late 19th century Paris
The term 'filthy rich' might be bandied about a lot, but in the nineteenth century it really meant something. The privileged classes were rotten with splendor and Guy de Maupassant's novel of sexual scandal and political corruption, Bel Ami, captured the various - err - comings and goings through the tale of a young man who uses sex as a weapon. It's fitting then that an adaptation has reared its head in a time when the eyes of the many are on the wealth of the few and it all seems relevant again, a century after the novel's publication. Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod revel in bringing the decadence and debauchery to life and the film looks fantastic; muted pastel tones and elaborate, ornate sets bring fin-de-siecle Paris to life but it's the film's antihero star that really elevates the story above the usual bodice-ripping fare.
Robert Pattinson brings an air of menace to the character of Bel Ami, hungrily eyeing the women in his path and smearing Paris with his sleazy glances and threatening sexuality. He might be amoral and at times pretty loathsome but it's to Pattinson's credit that he keeps the smarm metered, exuding a scandalous charm that the ladies in his company swoon over. He's sort of like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, only hornier. Added to the mix are a triad of winsome belles played by Christina Ricci (a young romantic), Uma Thurman (a politically ambitious firebrand) and Kristin Scott Thomas (an insecure housewife). In particular Ricci looks the part with her coquettish eyes and porcelain skin but it's Scott Thomas who does an exemplary task of bringing the simpering naivety of Virginie to life. It is the way these four play together that ensures the film's dark nature unfolds in an engaging way, paying due reverence to Maupassant's source (although a slight tweak to its ending was a wise move).
But no matter how much the film seduces, it still smacks of directors who are holding back a little. Sex scenes are brief, fleeting and poorly edited despite an overall sensuality and there are moments of emotional tension that are prevented from lingering as long as they should. It's never enough to really tarnish the whole but, given the source, there's a little too much restraint. That said, the window into a society of sexually liberated (for their time) women and corrupt men, coupled with the playful way in which the directors tease out similarities with modern relationships all make for surprisingly good fun, despite the grim tone.
A brooding tale of sex and scheming that is brought to life by its cast. More playful than you might expect, it's still a deliciously dark period piece that stays true to the tone of the novel.