Words, words, words: Novels, especially 19th-century ones, are full of the damned things, which can be an inconvenience for filmmakers doing adaptations.
Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, theater veterans making their cinematic debut with Bel Ami, try to downplay language, which seems a promising idea. But the strategy fails for several reasons, the foremost of which is their leading man.
Twilight franchise player Robert Pattinson plays the title character in the latest movie based on Guy de Maupassant's 1885 tale. Georges Duroy, soon dubbed "Bel Ami" by the daughter of one of his aristocratic lovers, is a man of little promise. A former cavalry officer in Algeria, he lives in a garret and works as a clerk. Then a chance encounter with an old army colleague leads him to unexpected success in a field for which he's utterly unqualified: journalism.
Words, again. Georges can't write a decent sentence, but he becomes the instrument of his old cohort's wife: Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman) uses the young man to indulge literary gifts that she, as a respectable woman, cannot openly showcase.
It's a useful alliance that expands when Madeleine, after being widowed, agrees to wed Georges. But theirs is not a marriage of true minds. Actually, Georges barely seems to have an intellect.
Here's how Maupassant sketches his antihero: "Tall, well-built, fair, with blue eyes, a curled mustache, hair naturally wavy and parted in the middle, he recalled the hero of the popular romances."
The filmmakers seem to think this description absolves them of having to endow Georges with a personality. He's a movie star. Therefore, of course he can have his way with whatever woman he desires, or simply seeks to exploit.
The directors, working with screenwriter Rachel Bennette, render large sections of the story in dialogue-free montage. Georges stalks wordlessly through dance halls, brothels, offices and drawing rooms. Pattinson sometimes glares and occasionally sneers, but mostly he beams. He's not a skilled mime, but he is capable of delivering a broad smile, something he may have learned while greeting fans at movie premieres.
Of course Georges has much to smile about. He moves quickly from a cold, blue-tinted room to sun-filled apartments and mansions. As a newspaper columnist, he becomes influential. (Ah, the joys of yesteryear.) And he dallies regularly with Madeleine's beautiful and lively if shallow friend, Clotilde (Christina Ricci). He also beds his boss's wife, Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), but that's more business than pleasure.
Ultimately, Georges discovers that he's not respected and has been manipulated. But he devises a coolly efficient revenge, which just happens to involve seducing a fourth woman (Holliday Grainger). She's young and pretty, if otherwise not very interesting. Sort of like Georges himself.
These final machinations, which ought to be more entertaining than they are, require people to speak to each other. But the lines neither sing nor sting and involve the usual cross-cultural costume-drama awkwardness: Late 19th-century Parisians chat (and shout) in English, in a mess of modern accents and idioms that clash with the ornate costumes and simulated pre-electric lighting.
There's more sex and nudity in the movie than was allowed to Maupassant or in '40s Hollywood, where George Sanders starred in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami.
But that's not enough to make this a contemporary rethink of a classic tale. In fact, the casting of an inexpressive pinup boy in the lead role is the most up-to-date thing about Bel Ami. Everything else is as conventional as the plodding, pudding-thick score.