Bel Ami

by Steve Weinstein

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday August 20, 2012

A corrupt government in a Western democracy filthy with new money plans to invade an Arab country to rape it of its natural resources.

This depressingly familiar refrain forms the underbelly of the character development in Guy de Maupassant's 1885 masterpiece "Bel Ami" as well as the latest film version. De Maupassant, of course, is best known as a short story writer -- with the American O'Henry, the greatest twister of endings in world literature (if you're lucky enough to have forgotten the ending of "The Necklace" from your high school lit class, read it again; totally wonderful).

In "Bel Ami," de Maupassant strove for that realism that was being perfected by his French counterparts, especially the great Emile Zola, whose "Nana," about a whore who conquers and nearly brings down Parisian society, is the female version of Georges Duroy, the titular anti-hero of "Bel Ami."

As in another great French realist author's work, Balzac's "Lost Illusions," "Bel Ami" gives us the picaresque history of a provincial son of peasants who comes to Paris to make his way and finds that the quickest path to fame and riches is via the bedroom, while nominally becoming a journalist (political writer in "Bel Ami"; literary critic in "Lost Illusions").

The frank descriptions of Duroy's sexual prowess and seductions in de Maupassant's work are the kinds of scenes that gave "French novels" the saucy reputation that was so well satirized in the musical "The Music Man." Having by coincidence just finished the book a few months before the film was released, I was looking forward -- as one always does after reading the original text -- to the film.

Like most of the filmgoing public, I was sufficiently turned off by the critical drubbing (a pathetic 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). But, having seen the DVD version, I can say that the film is really not so bad, not bad at all.

At first, I was exasperated by the leisurely pace and elliptical dialogue that seemed to sell short an incident-filled book. But once I got into the filmmakers' groove, I began to "get" what they were striving for: Since it would have been impossible to recreate the novel, they instead give a sort-of taste of it.

For me, at least, this worked, helped along by extraordinarily beautiful and sumptuous sets and costumes that recreate the decadent Paris of La Belle Epoque.

What really makes the film so satisfying, however, is the great ensemble acting. While one would expect veterans like Uma Thurmon and Kristin Scott Thomas (as two of Duroy's conquests) to give great performances -- and they most certainly do -- it's Christina Ricci and, yes, Robert Pattinson who provide the surprises.

Ricci shows shows how the girl of previous films has matured into a genuine, grown-up actress, in a great performance as the one woman whom Duroy really loves (as much as this monster of ambition is capable of love).

Having never seen any of the "Twilight" films, I suspect that I didn't come to the film with the same daggers as other critics. Instead, I just enjoyed Pattinson's sneering gestures as the marks of a man who knows only the basest instincts and acts on them. Overall, I thought he was pretty good.

The DVD version has one big advantage: English-language subtitles. While this may sound "coals to Newcastle" silly, it really does help enhance your viewing. The British accents and subdued dialogue often make it hard to understand what is going on, so I strongly recommend turning on this feature before watching.

The DVD also contains one of those "Behind the Scenes" compilations of interviews and other add-ons that don't really add much to the film. I would much rather have enjoyed a mini-documentary on the food, smoking habits, liquor, clothing and decor of fin-de-siécle Paris -- all of which is brought out in such gorgeous detail in the film itself.

My only complaint is that this was not released as a Blu-Ray disc. The loving attention to detail, the beautiful interior and exterior shots, and the women's gowns -- all call for the precise clarity of Blu-Ray.

Bel Ami
Released by Sony PIctures Home Entertainment


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Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).