In "Bel Ami" Robert Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, an 1890s Parisian rake on the make. The flawed but intriguing film is based on a tale by Guy de Maupassant in which an unscrupulous journalist (is there any other kind?) rises from squalid garrets to art-laden mansions, using aristocratic women as his steppingstones. It's a ripping good yarn, a carnival of greed, sex, deceit, misunderstanding and even love. Much of the movie is compelling, as Georges exploits his influential lovers for amusement and advancement and is used by them in turn. Pattinson is the star attraction, but with Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas and Christina Ricci as his liaisons, this is far from a one-man show.
The film toys with our affections, establishing Georges as a sympathetic underdog, then detailing his evolution into a cynic. Meeting old army comrade Charles (Philip Glenister), who married well and became a newspaper editor, he is invited into the swirl of society life. The ill-educated Georges is baffled by the array of silverware at a posh dinner party, but he knows how to charm the ladies whose husbands treat them as decorative bric-a-brac. He mesmerizes his friend's intellectual, ambitious wife, Madeleine (Thurman); sensuous, romantic Clotilde (Ricci); and modest, proper Virginie (Scott Thomas), wife of the paper's top editor, Rousset (Colm Meaney). In short order, Georges has a love nest with women spinning through like riders on a merry-go-round. As his personal influence grows, he becomes a player in an even more dangerous game: Rousset plots to thwart the government's secret plan to invade Morocco and make a fortune in the process.
"Bel Ami" is a handsome production, yet riddled with weaknesses. The directing team, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, stage some sequences powerfully (Georges' introduction, a prolonged passage without dialogue, is confident visual storytelling), but their sense of pace fails them in the sputtering final reels, a cascade of sudden reversals and betrayals. The screenplay by Rachel Bennette concentrates more on the hullabaloo of coincidences that drive the plot than the characters' emotional lives.
The film runs down as the switcheroos pile up. The crucial shortcoming is Pattinson's performance. He's using his "Twilight" stardom to choose varied and unusual projects, but he is still in the embryo stage as an actor. He acts with his upper lip, nose, eyebrows and forehead, not with his soul. John Malkovich, not the handsomest man, proved in the similarly themed "Dangerous Liaisons" that real sex appeal comes from irresistible charisma, not pretty-boy looks. Pattinson is a thoroughbred beauty, but he's no Malkovich.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186