Directed by: Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, Runtime: 102 minutes
Water for Elephants and Remember Me make a compelling case for Robert Pattinson as more than just the stony, swooning vampire persona that's made him a household name; he's vivacious and charismatic when surrounded by an old-Hollywood outlook or levelheaded romantic drama. As much as other roles have pushed his limitations beyond the Twilight films, he's yanked two steps back in the overwrought Bel Ami, an adaptation of Guy de Maupassant's tale of lusting for wealth and manipulating powerful women in 19th-Century Paris. This lavishly-acted period drama makes a habit of bringing out all the qualities of Pattinson's presence that send him into lampoon territory: discomfited facial mannerisms, women fawning over him without proper reasoning, and a pale, sickly expression that's either intentionally aimed at certain fans or a hilarious coincidence. Pattinson's portrayal of Georges Duroy, however, is far from the only misfire in this laborious, painfully-directed abyss of stifled emotion.
Maupassant's story focuses on Parisian aristocracy in the late-1800s and the man, ex-soldier Duroy, who works his way into their ranks through nefarious between-the-sheets maneuvers. Impoverished, void of prospects and reveling in depression after failing to find his wealth in Paris, Duroy stumbles onto an old military chum, Charles Forestier, who takes him under his wing and thrusts him head-long into the journalism industry. But it's not without further assistance: he's given a writer's voice through Forestier's wife, Madeline (Uma Thurman), who also turns his attention to certain influential women in their circles whom might be persuaded by less-savory means -- chief of those being Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), a lonely married woman with whom Duroy builds a deeper relationship. Genuine affection develops between them, but Duroy's pursuits for wealth and power supersede romantic desire, leading him to careen among the wives and heavy-hitters involved in his new line of work.
Most of the interest in Bel Ami's overarching plot fades once the first hints of Duroy's powers of persuasion emerge -- or lack thereof. There's nothing convincing about the way he wins the attention of the women involved in his machinations, where his inches-away presence seems to classify as enough of a sphere of seduction to justify their unyielding adoration. Inept scripting gives Duroy a wealth of influence in the Parisian microcosm that the character simply doesn't earn; it's hard to comprehend why a quick game of tag or a basket of pears opens up opportunities for his advancement so quickly, causing these prominent women to coddle his whims with little more than eyelash-batting and tricky grins. It's almost as if directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod assume that Robert Pattinson possesses enough supernatural charisma to fill the void where dialogue doesn't exist, accentuated by endless close-ups that capture every one of his grins, pouts, pangs of discomfort and bedroom-eyed gazes.
Bel Ami could've possibly worked if Duroy and the cluster of women at his feet had developed a more provocative through line, instead of being handled like erratic chess pieces. Maupassant's plot has been reduced to an indecipherable and tedious mess of politics, media, and persuasion, blurring in the background to get Duroy in prominent positions of power and wealth; cluttered important details about dismantling a government and exploited journalistic integrity disappear in melodramatic angst, begging to be ignored. It's hard to lend an attentive ear to these relevant elements when other poorly-handled plot details expose a wealth of ignorance on the surface, starting with Duroy's cavalier handling of his mistress Clotilde in public and festering from there. Directors Donnellan and Ormerod probably would've liked for these points to say a little something about exploiting relationships and media -- their scattered presence in the background might be part of the point -- but it's lost in the stiff context given here.
Once we've seen just how far Duroy goes in his pursuits, using and abusing all those in his path, Bel Ami becomes an exasperating glimpse at aristocratic tomfoolery that provokes groans of irritation for all the wrong reasons. Chocked full of mostly stilted performances -- including quixotic turnouts from Uma Thurman and Kristen Scott Thomas as the innocent, easily-swayed Virginie Rousset -- who maneuvers around a grave miscalculation of Robert Pattinson's dark and brooding sex appeal, it relishes in how much of a conniving scoundrel Georges Duroy embodies without bothering to convince those watching of how he's able to do so, even if his ill-tempered schemes visibly play out on-screen as proof. It all rings very hollow, about as empty as Georges Duroy himself is proclaimed to be at a foreboding moment late in the film; it's altogether unclear what's to be taken away from this peculiar story of unfeeling marriages, double-crossed lovers, and the man who feels like it's all justified in the spirit of being more than just a vagabond ex-soldier.
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