Sexing your way to the top – or at least to the upper middle – is its own vocation. Besides good looks, it requires everything the character Georges Duroy possesses in Bel Ami, the Guy de Maupassant novel that inspires this film: charm, magnetism, the ability to pick the sexual conquests who can offer not only physical pleasure but also tangible society connections, the ability to deflect the occasionally clingy affections of the rich and powerful and the careerist timing to know which iron to strike.
Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is an impoverished clerk living in a hovel who begins his bluffer’s journalism career in Paris thanks to an association with Forestier (Philip Glenister), a former military comrade. Forestier’s wife (Uma Thurman) even helps Duroy write articles, but initially refuses his sexual manipulations. Meanwhile he takes horny young Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci) as a mistress and uses a prim older woman (Kristin Scott Thomas) to cement his ascent to power. When Madame Forestier becomes widowed, he marries her, too. He’s a busy man.
Just don’t be fooled by the sexy premise. The fancy ladies may call Pattinson bel ami but for him it’s more about social climbing and cash than sex. He's nobody's friend and neither is the film. It’s a generic costume drama that documents the social machinations, listless humping and soap opera glare-n-stare face-pulling you expect from vintage daytime drama, with none of the human connection you get from any random episode of, say, Downton Abbey.
Worse, it's a film constructed around an unsympathetic character that can't quite bring itself to hate him like it should. Pattinson's current trending movie heartthrob status seems to be holding the filmmakers back when it should have forced them to push him into darker, meaner territory. This book was subtitled The History of a Scoundrel upon publication in 1885, but the movie only succeeds in making him look annoyed over every little thing that doesn't quite go his way. A perpetual sneer isn't dangerous or seductive, it's just off-putting. Flex those huge, stern, authoritative eyebrows with a little more muscle next time, Mr. P. They'll take you farther than Twilight if you let them.