This review first appeared in the Sunday Star Times, 22nd July 2012
Paris in the 1880s, and a sullen, troubled Georges Duroy slumps in his chair, staring gloomily into the empty imaginings of his bleak future. Having returned penniless from the Algerian war, he spends his time frequenting whorehouses, smiling wanly at over-painted ladies of the night. When a chance meeting with newspaperman Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) gives Georges a job he is unskilled for, he is introduced to a life of champagne and bored housewives. It’s soon apparent his fortunes lie in their plunging necklines and coy glances, as he earns the term of endearment “Bel ami” (literally “beautiful friend”).
French literary master Guy de Maupassant is somewhat to blame for this tawdry tale of love and sex used carelessly, but the banal interpretation of his story lies squarely at the feet of its two inexperienced directors, and its protagonist, Twilight star Robert Pattinson. His selfish, squandering Georges bed hops and social climbs, but it is impossible to cheer for him when his character has no saving graces. Even the excellent supporting cast cannot save this – poor Kristin Scott Thomas, once the beauty who everyone longed for in The English Patient, turns in her first matronly role, literally embarrassing in her seduction of the pouting young cad. Uma Thurman has strength of will but tightness of forehead. Christina Ricci just bats her beautiful eyes. In fact, none of the characters are likeable (breaking the first rule of Screenwriting 101) and it’s impossible to be Team Anyone.
On the upside, the music is rather splendid, and there is a daring scene of sexual congress that turns the tables on Georges’ seemingly insatiable libido.
But these smatterings of artfulness cannot make up for its limp contribution to the world of French literary adaptations.