At some point while working on a profile of Robert Pattinson, I realized I couldn’t write honestly or insightfully about the actor if I only considered his post-“Twilight” work, which I generally considered to. I’m not sure at what point I decided I needed to watch everything in his filmography, but one film I did not particularly anticipate sitting through was “Bel Ami.” Costume dramas, especially ones set in 19th-century Europe, tend to function as something akin to the bane of my existence.
But to my very pleasant surprise, “Bel Ami” stands out as a delicious experience in a primarily dreary and stuffy genre. To be fair, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed the film had I watched it upon release in 2012. Pattinson was still, reluctantly, in the thrall of “Twilight” mania. The specious read of the film is to see his character, Georges Duroy, as an emotionless man who somehow manages to function as an effortless womanizer. (There is admittedly some jealousy in play, I’ll be up front.)
Indeed, there are some similarities to Edward Cullen at the surface level of “Bel Ami.” Yet with some distance, the film looks more like a reaction against his famous role. Georges makes plenty of sexual conquests in the film, but he achieves them not out of confidence or swagger. He’s deeply insecure about his station in the Parisian social strata, nervously approaching formality. In his first high society appearance, Georges musses with his appearance several times in the mirror before entering the room.
He’s at a distinct advantage in the elite ecosystem since he does not come from money and only gets a seat at the table when a former comrade from war lifts him up. To hold this tenuous position, Georges needs an ace in the hole, and he finds it through gaming undersexed and undervalued wives. Wooing them works to his benefit for a while, but eventually he learns that appealing to them goes only so far in a male-dominated world. This narrative acts as something of a meta commentary on Pattinson’s participation in the “Twilight” franchise, and his desperation and frustration is the secret sauce that raises “Bel Ami” out of standard period piece drudgery and into the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory.