If Bel Ami has anything going for it, it is this: it allows Robert Pattinson to show that he can do more than the vamparic. That’s not to say that there isn’t a certain vampiric quality to his performance of Georges Duroy but a critic must give credit where credit is due, and the credit is certainly due to Robert Pattinson for being able to show that he can channel those vampiric qualities into other emotions and ambitions.
Because really, when you peel back the skin, Georges Duroy is just a vampire who doesn’t feed off the blood of others. He feeds off other fluids. And money and power. This isn’t really an original story, least of all because it’s an adaptation of a novel by Guy de Maupassant. But the rags to riches narrative is one that has been around since the dawn of storytelling. Charles Dickens was doing it before Maupassant, as were the Brontë’s and Jane Austen, though the latter lacks the same pessimism of the others. Yet, the novel, and the film, never shy away from the fact that this story has been seen before but instead lays the plot before you like a carpet. From the first moment the three ladies are paraded in, one by one, to sit with him as he waits for dinner and a fiendish smile creeps upon his face, we know they will all have become another conquest by the story’s end.
This doesn’t mean that the story doesn’t have some twists and turns. The audience fully expect Duroy to violate Suzanne Walter for revenge against her father and marry her for the thirteen million francs. Yet, he doesn’t do it. It seems he’s learned something from his experiences with Madeleine Forester and Comte de Vaudrec in the matters of reputation and manipulation, but unlike most stories of this nature the lesson isn’t a good one. He’s learned the subtitles of the art. He’s figured out the craft rather than realising the error of his ways and the uselessness of money. In the end, money and power still mean as much to him then as they did in the beginning. Honestly, I expected him to snap and kill either himself or someone else. Probably Madeleine or Monsieur Walter.
That is probably the great unifying theme of the film. One ambitious man over comes his sexual deviancy and anger towards society long enough to manipulate an old man and his daughter for millions. Not exactly the feel good story of the year, but then it was probably never supposed to be. Georges Duroy is barely even an anti-hero. His one noble action in the entire film and probably what amounts to the greatest act of love he could muster is the exact moment where he does decided not to spoil Suzanne Walter before marriage. He keeps himself for Clotilde de Marelle. But it’s really like hugging a cat and getting your face scratched. It’s certainly a form of affection but painful all the same. Suzanne Walter is trapped in a loveless marriage, her mother has been driven hysterical by the careless manipulations of the same man, her father must pay the man who stole his daughter and destroyed his wife and Coltilde remains on the sidelines, an object of love but never able to fully realise it within society.
In many ways, Georges Duroy is a much more riveting image of a vampire than Edward Cullen ever manages to be. We can blame this on any number of things depending on your bias but I think what it most comes down to is Stephanie Meyer’s attempt to depict Edward as a perfect man. He is young, noble and even his casual aloofness is suggested to be down to not wanting to hurt the ones that he loves. Georges Duroy is still fairly young but he is far from noble and anything but aloof. His emotions seem to be constantly bubbling beneath the surface, shrinking in the light of a triumphant venture but erupting when all his paranoia is realised. He struggles to control himself and the look on his face becomes increasingly demented. Even in the way that he seduces women seems reminiscent of Dracula, as he creeps up behind them and touches them ever so tentatively. It seems that this is how a vampire should be if he is to be dangerous and yet seductive all the same. A trait Edward Cullen never seemed to master.
And yet, there is one major flaw in the film that sticks out every time I think about it. We are never really given any reason how Georges Duroy manages to seduce so many women. No one comments on his physical features, except for an introductory remark by Charles Forester, played superbly by Philip Glenister, who says that, he ‘looks terrible’. Hardly something to swoon over. The film is shot completely from Duroy’s perspective so, admittedly, some of the conversations about what made the poor ex-solder so alluring could have gone on off screen. It’d have been nice to even overhear apart of that conversation, either when Duroy is approaching a room with the ladies present or perhaps at Virginie Walter’s women’s group. Once he’s risen up the social ladder somewhat, some of this allure could be passed off as intrigue by his ambition or interest in him now that he’s got some money. But even a prostitute seems to get jealous when he strides into a bar with Clotilde at his side.
All in all, however, Bel Ami is not a bad film. I wouldn’t expect it to win any awards but it’s certainly one of the better things that Robert Pattinson has done with his career. The ensemble cast are all enjoyable too, although Philip Glenister would certainly be my choice stand out. The story won’t astound you but you will probably be surprised by some of the swerves along the way. If you’re desperate to spend some money at the cinema or you’re waiting for The Hunger Games, then it’s not a bad choice at all. Otherwise, wait for the DVD.