“Bel Ami” counts as the fourth adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 novel, following a 1939 film, 1947’s “The Private Affairs of Bel Ami,” and a 2005 made-for-TV version. For being what is virtually a high-end soap opera in the vein of 1988’s playfully seductive “Dangerous Liaisons,” this one curiously feels like a lifeless Cliff Notes version. With an attractive cast filling out the period frock, the film strikes pretty poses, but it’s too afraid to get its hands dirty as one man’s carnal rags-to-riches story. From the efforts of first-time directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, working from an empty, undercooked screenplay by Rachel Bennette, “Deadly Dull Liaisons” seems much more fitting.
Paris, 1890. Lonely and penniless, Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is a British ex-soldier whose days of living in his dingy flat are just about over when he enters the uppity world of Parisian society. After meeting an old acquaintance, journalist Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), he is offered to write for the local newspaper La Vie Francaise. Georges happens to be a poor writer, so Forestier’s beautiful wife, the independent Madeleine (Uma Thurman), lends her writing services but breaks it to the young man that she will not be his mistress. Instead, Georges visits Madeleine’s young friend, the earnest Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), whose husband is perpetually absent. If Clotilde isn’t enough for him, he also starts seeing Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), the influential wife of Rousset (Colm Meaney), the publisher of La Vie Francaise. Ripping off all of their bodices and taking them to bed, Georges makes his way to the top of the social ladder by manipulating as many people as possible.
For a bed-hopping costume drama, “Bel Ami” exhibits very little sensuality. Sure, Mr. Pattinson wastes no time thrusting his bare bum in the film’s first six minutes. And Ms. Ricci bares her boobies for a few seconds, until (naturally) covering up under the covers. However, how the characters get to the bedroom is unconvincing. Cumulatively, Bennette’s screenplay is bereft of nuance and the miscasting of Pattinson can’t fuel the passionless fire. Credit the “Twilight”-famed actor for tryingâ€”naysayers should give him that at leastâ€”but he’s not really up to the task, scowling and smirking a lot, to no avail, and lacking the magnetism required for such a role. When Georges first enters a brothel, you almost expect him to sink his teeth into one of the whores’ necks like Edward Cullen. But seriously, it makes little sense to why every one of his married mistresses find him to be such a charming ladykiller. Pattinson melodramatically conveys Georges’ calculations and rage, but the character remains a drab cipher. What really drives Georges to be such a womanizing opportunist? It’s not until a late, brief piece of dialogue with Clotilde do we get a sense of understanding where Georges’ immoral social-climbing stems from.
To douse the heat even more, the bedroom scenes are truncated and not particularly sexy. Whenever the steaminess is just getting started, the film cuts to the next scene. One involving Madeleine saddling herself on top of the “bel ami” is even oddly framed. Thankfully, Uma Thurman knows how to smolder as the slyly intelligent and teasing Madeleine. On the other hand, the equally lovely Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas are fine but untested, as they don’t have much to work with, playing thinly drawn madams. Neither of them are given enough to develop actual characters beyond easily susceptible bores that inscrutably fall for the cad. In the end, there’s not a soul to care about or understand.
There is some political intrigue (i.e. the controversy of France’s involvement in Morocco) dying to get out, but of course, that even gets tucked under the mattress. The only compensatory pleasure is in the elegance of the production, and the propulsive, classically overwrought musical strains of co-composers Lakshman Joseph De Saram and Rachel Portman. With a juicier, emotionally rich screenplay and a capable, less vapid leading man, who knows what might have come of “Bel Ami”? But as it is, the film is neither lurid, interesting, or fun enough to make an impression as a trashy soap or a literary adaptation. Locating a pulse might have helped this stately thing.
102 min., rated R.
Grade: C –