Guy de Maupassant’s second novel, about an unprincipled cad who rises in Belle Epoque Parisian society using women as stepping stones, has often been adapted for the screen, most famously by Albert Lewin as The Private Affairs of Bel Ami in 1947, with George Sanders in the title role. Lewin, a cultured Francophile, did a handsome if over-wordy job, but at 41 Sanders was too old for the role, and the Hollywood censors, much to Lewin’s annoyance, imposed a moralistic ending in which the cad meets his deserts in a fatal duel. Hard to think of anything more out of keeping with Maupassant’s novel, which exudes the urbane cynicism for which the writer was famous.
The new version has no truck with such sanctimony. Rachel Bennette’s script offers a faithful rendition of the original, up to and including the ending with Georges Duroy (the amorously ambitious ‘Bel Ami’ of the title) relishing his triumph over the shallow, corrupt society that he at once despises and personifies. Although it is well-grounded in its period – Budapest locations convincingly impersonate 1890s Paris, and rampant French colonialism in North Africa provides a murky political backdrop – the film’s themes feel remarkably topical. An Arab country is invaded for ostensibly high-minded motives, political parties denounce each other’s policies while surreptiously adopting them, the press attacks the corruption from which it profits, and a young man of no discernable talent attains celebrity thanks to a pretty face and a plausible manner.
Joint directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, here making their feature debut, are best known for their work with Cheek by Jowl, the avant garde theatre company they founded in 1981. If Bel Ami occasionally feels airless and overly art-directed that may partly reflect the period it’s set in, but also the directors’ over indulgence in facial close-ups. It’s almost as though they didn’t trust their actors to express emotions in mid-shot – the last thing you’d expect from theatre directors. This does Robert Pattinson as Bel Ami no favours, since in close up his face tends to lapse into the bovine, but at further remove he gives an alert amusedly insinuating performance. A scene where he plays tap with his soon-to-be lover Clothilde (Christina Ricci, appealingly kittenish) and her little daughter brings out the boyish charm that stands him in good stead with the Parisian ladies. Even so he is outpaced in the acting stakes by his trio of lovers, Ricci, Uma Thurman as his mentor and subsequently his wife, and Kristin Scott Thomas, touchingly vulnerable as his boss’s wife. As Thurman’s Madeleine notes, unwittingly setting Georges on his unscrupulous path to the top, in this seemingly male dominated society the really important people are the wives – and the same goes for the film.