Judge Gordon Sullivan wants to know why period drama has to feel 150 years old.
Possessed by love. Consumed by desire.
Maybe it's the result of summer blockbuster fever (or its opposite, Oscar-bait snobbery), but there's an expectation that every time a dramatic actor or actress gets in front of the camera it must be a big, important film. Every film is therefore measured against the great films, and if it isn't up to that standard, it's immediately dismissed. Bel Ami seems to be the perfect candidate for this kind of treatment. It's based on a Guy de Maupassant novel, stars four well-respected thespians, and aims for a certain period grandeur. Though it fails to meet those ambitions throughout, for fans of the actors, there might be enough joy to let the film scrape by as a minor diversion.
Georges is a young former soldier in need of money. When a former comrade offers him the opportunity to work for a newspaper, Georges jumps at the chance. His new position (along with good looks and charm) allows Georges to meet some of the more rich upper-middle class women of the Bella Epoque. Slowly, Georges is able to sleep his way to apparent security.
Love it or loathe it, Fifty Shades of Grey has potently demonstrated that the culture (or at least women with buying power who seem to be making up the book's audience) can take a lot more than people apparently thought. The idea used to be that women wanted nothing more than a pretty face and some flowers (which explains the often-strange covers of romance novels). What E.L. James has proven decisively is that a significant percentage of women like and enjoy stories well outside of what previously considered the norm of "romantic" or "erotic" literature.
The problem with Bel Ami is that it's stuck in the old, pre-Fifty Shades mentality. The hero Georges is a rogue, a cad. He's sleeping his way to wealth and security, and a handful of women abet him in this pursuit. The focus is almost entirely on Pattinson's pretty face and the lush period details (not much different from those romance covers I mentioned). That's fine, except that it's not enough to sustain 102 minutes of dramatic action. Georges is single-minded in his pursuit of wealth, and while he obviously appreciates the women he seduces, they're mere pawns in his larger game.
What Bel Ami misses is the opportunity to tell the women's story. Given their age, wealth, and place in a society increasingly naturalistic in its dealing with sex, these women had to have known they were being used. However, because the film focuses so intently on Georges and his rise, the opportunity to really explore their subjectivity is lost. It would have been a much more interesting film if we'd learned more about what makes these women tick, why they "allow" themselves to be seduced by such an obvious rogue. Making them more willing and aware participants only makes Georges' "conquests" more interesting and their characters more compelling.
Instead, what we get is a paint-by-numbers period drama. Sure, the filmmakers try to sex things up because of Pattinson's appeal, but for the most part we're looking at the rise, fall, and rise of a guy in 150-year-old clothes. In that context, it's not an awful film. With lowered expectations, it might be a fun diversion for fans of Pattinson or any of his paramours. All the actors involved acquit themselves nicely. Pattinson won't win an Oscar for his portrayal of Georges, but his stoic, almost wooden performance suits a character who is playing everything close to the vest. Christina Ricci is surprisingly bubbly as the youngest of Georges' conquests, and, aside from a dubious accent, is convincing. Kristen Scott Thomas is the best player in the deck, as she gives a wonderfully tragic take on a woman past her prime being seduced by a younger man. Uma Thurman also gives a surprisingly knowing performance as a woman who might be Georges' equal in scheming.
The film arrives in a decent DVD package, though like the film it could use some further development. The standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is pleasing to look at. Colors are well-saturated and detail is strong throughout. Black levels are consistent and fairly deep, and compression artifacts aren't a problem. The Dolby 5.1 Surround track is fine, with dialogue coming clean and clear from the center and the surrounds getting use during more crowded scenes.
The film's lone extra is a six-minute making-of featurette that mixes film clips with talking-head style interviews with a number of the principles.
Bel Ami wants to be a commentary on the media and its relationship to fame. While that connection is there, it's lost amid a plot that goes nowhere and a production unwilling to commit to the depravity necessary to sell the story. Even taking all that into consideration, Bel Ami is a decent, though flawed, period drama with some solid performances that will appeal to genre fans.
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