Once upon a time, a movie like this would have been Oscar bait, released in the fall in upscale independent movie houses. It features accomplished actresses, a rising young male lead, and a story based on a classic novel featuring politics and sex. The movie business has changed however. The lush setting and story line are not enough to draw in large crowds. The economic factors that influence movie funding and distribution, now put a small well crafted film like this on the same plane as a piece of exploitation like Piranha 3DD. Bel Ami is playing in a limited number of theaters but can be had for ten bucks as a video on demand presentation, the same day it opened in those theaters. Somewhere a bean counter made the calculation that the best way to recoup the money invested in this film was to cash in quickly and with as little outlay of marketing dollars as possible.
I guess that is a little ironic because the character at the center of this story acts in much the same way. He is aggressive in pursuit of money, and short sighted in regard to status or emotional commitment. Some of his actions are understandable, but many are cruel and carry negative consequences for him as well. This film reminds me of the Scorsese version of “The Age of Innocence” crossed with the Glenn Close/John Malkovitch version of “Dangerous Liaisons”. Each of those movies had critical champions and award pedigrees. You will not find that next year for this film, not because it is unworthy but because it will be perceived as damaged goods because of the new Hollywood economics. This is a shame because Bel Ami is an outstanding costume drama that is well acted and extravagantly visualized.
Let me begin with the performances. Christina Ricci plays a young but knowing social wife who truly falls for our hero. She is gamine and sexual and still feels like she has a backbone of steel. The reason she keeps coming back to him is love and Ricci conveys that love with her soft eyes and delicate mouth. The expression on her face at the end of the movie tells us exactly what is coming next, even though we will not get to see it. Uma Thurman has the larger more central role, and she effectively conveys a woman with a secret agenda. She has two or three emotional scenes and gets the tears and tone right for those moments, but it is in those sequences where her true motives are revealed that she creates a complete character, one much more complex than the protagonist ever expected. Kristin Scott Thomas is a little too fragile and naive to be as effective as she could be. The fault is partially in the script which requires her to be the one insipid character in the movie. She also plays the character as being so brittle that that you expect her to crack the first time she is touched. Colm Meaney at first appears to be a minor character with an easy disposition. We discover in the story and in his distainful expressions what a rat bastard he truly is. This was simple good casting.
The main attraction is Robert Pattinson, the star of the “Twilight” movie series. Inevitably, he will be memorialized in his obituary as the brooding Edward Cullen. The success he has had in that film series will allow him to work for the rest of his life on the more serious and unusual parts he appears to be drawn to. It is easy to dismiss him as a pretty face because of those movies, but here, as he has shown in a couple of other parts, he is a good actor. It is true that much of his work here is done without dialogue, which would suggest that he is cruising on his looks, except the expressions are of longing and frustration and avarice. He manages to get those feelings on the screen without shouting most of the time. There are points where his character must act out as well, but the best work he does is really quite subtle. There is a quick clothed sex scene with Uma Thurman’s character, and you can get everything you are supposed to know about the relationship out of his facial expressions. He does an excellent job.
I was not familiar with the original story, but it fits right in with the political and social morality tales I mentioned earlier. The costumes are striking, the women’s clothes are detained and reveal much about their characters on the surface and underneath. I also found the score to be quite haunting and effective, although there was no distinctive melody that I can now recall. The photography and lighting are up there with the best period pieces, sometimes there were small changes in lighting that magnified the emotions very effectively without turning the scene into a cartoon.
My wife said she could spot at least a dozen women in the audience who were probably there because they were reading “50 Shades of Grey”. The sexualization of this actor through the character he plays in the vampire movies, is drawing an audience in, but it will probably blind people to the talent he he trying very hard to develop. Bel Ami is a well made costume drama, that has a lot more going for it than just some butt shots of the star. It is an adult film made with good intentions and a great deal of skill by those involved in putting it together, it is just too bad it won’t be treated that way for the reasons I have pointed out.