I think in the 19th century, if you weren't one of the people making monumental discoveries about radium, you were busy double-crossing someone while wearing a waistcoat (or sometimes not wearing one, you get me?). Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is part of the latter group, as an uneducated soldier who has no ambition except to improve his place in society in exchange for as little effort as possible. He has very little talent except for looking pretty and seducing silly but rich women. This is the delight of the story, based on the 1885 Guy de Maupaussant novel--normally, social climbing at any cost is reserved for evil female characters. Here, Pattinson is doing something that should be deliciously wicked and unique, but it somehow manages to be completely predictable in its unpredictability.
Georges is sallow and drinking lousy beer when he runs into Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), a friend from his service days in Algeria. Charles buys him proper champagne, gives him some money for a dinner suit, and invites him to hang out with the rest of his affluent crew that runs the newspaper. Charles' wife Madeleine (Uma Thurman) comes up with the brilliant idea for Georges to write a column in the paper about his time in Algeria. The only problem is, he can't write anything more complicated than a grocery list, so Madeleine takes pity on him and helps him out, giving everyone the impression that he's a hot, up-and-coming journalist. Also taking pity on him is Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci), who he begins an illicit affair with. He even gets her to pay for their love nest because she too is tricked by his dead shark eyes and nice pecs. This is the part, by the way, where I started to check out of the film. I had no idea why anyone would even like Georges, much less adore him and give him stuff. A fatal combination of underacting by Pattinson and a lack of character development in the script made all of the roller coaster lying and scheming a lot less naughty and fun.
But that's not even close to the end of it. Soon it begins to get more difficult for Georges to keep up the appearance that he has some ability other than throwing an Old Timey Blue Steel glance at women and getting them to remove their corsets. But Georges' luck keeps getting better, as Charles falls gravely ill just after discovering Georges is a fraud, leaving his position and wife up for grabs. It goes on from there, and if you insist on seeing the film (because you also insist on sleeping with your advance ticket for Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part 2 under your pillow), I don't want to ruin the tiny amount of gasp-worthy moments the film has left in its last 30 minutes.
Movies like this should be so shocking that you are mopping your brow and frantically looking for the fan you keep in your hoop skirt (like Dangerous Liaisons, a much better way to watch a velvet-and-brocade-clad Uma Thurman). Casting Pattinson in the lead role took away any kind of believability the character and story had in the first place, because admittedly, I am not much of a fan, although I feel like he has good work in him somewhere. While all the other actors in Bel Ami look like they belong in a period piece where people love having affairs and talking about politics, Pattinson seems out of place. But if you see it like an impressionist painting, where broad strokes make up for great detail, the movie almost works. But you won't need your fan.