Bel Ami: a great hommage to Maupassant’s boldness and modernity
by Bénédicte Prot
It’s not by chance that Guy de Maupassant’s novel Bel-Ami (in English also called The history of a scoundrel: a novel), first published in the magazine Gil Blas as a series of episodes, keeps popping up on the silver screen. His character Georges Duroy, a handsome and ambitious young man in Paris during the Belle Epoque, who navigates between debauchery at the Folies Bergères and politics, capitalism, and scandals in the city’s salons, is eternally fascinating. Bel Ami [+see also:
film profile] by the British directors Declan Donnellan et Nick Ormerod features a handsome yet unashamedly lecherous Robert Pattinson who does not hide his humble origins, but neither masks his ferocious ambition to escape his lack of fortune.
To succeed in 1885, you don’t need talent but connections. Thus, at the beginning of the film, when Georges comes across Charles Forestier, the editor-in-chief of La Vie Française, he does not hesitate to remind him that they served together in Algeria, and unblinkingly accepts a few coins to buy an evening outfit without which he cannot decently accept his dinner invitation.
That very night, this falsely candid young man, who lives in a tiny maid’s room, starts his social ascension all guns blazing. At the dinner hosted by Forestier, he meets three women who will soon nickname him “Bel Ami”, “Handsome Friend” in English, and in turn (then simultaneously) each serve him as stepping stones. Very theatrically, the directors successivley seat each of these three very different beauties in front of him.
First there is the cold Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman) whose independence and determination are almost masculine, even if she explains to him that in Paris it’s the women who are in charge and that she will never be his mistress even if she will help him and even write his articles for him. The fresh Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci) is very different from her friend Madeleine. She confesses to prefer frivolity to politics, and is the one to spontaneously make George’s first arrangement, as everything here works through connections and arrangements, by meeting him in a furnished apartment for which she will pay. Finally, Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas), older and not such a good negociator, remains more discreet until she falls madly in love with Georges, and leaks information on possible insider trading to him, only to be inflicted with the worst of broken hearts in return. From one woman to the next, even if we do briefly believe that “Bel Ami” might truly love Clothilde then Madeleine who he ends up marrying, we soon realise that he is not these ladies’ new toy, or even their gigolo as it might appear, but instead a foul opportunist who would do anything to climb the social ladder, with his greedy, pretentious, and Machiavellian pout.
The film’s decor is rich in details, from the flowers on the wall to the bed sheets. Donnellan and Ormerod’s actors shine in this satire of a vile and corrupt society in which we recognise today’s vices, to the point that the seductive young man that we meet at the beginning of the film ends up seeming absolutely despicable. Their film shows the cynicism of the novel Bel-Ami, and is adapted with loyalty and such human and social realism that it remains extremely relevant today.
(Translated from French)