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Love in the Afternoon, Every Afternoon

Bel Ami (2012)


Social climbing never goes out of fashion; and dubious press practices, Western countries bogged down in desert conflicts and unhappy war veterans are all about as current as it gets. So despite the outward signs of a musty costume drama, "Bel Ami" is never stale. In fact, it takes pains to stay sprightly throughout the tale of Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson), skilled lothario and serial seducer — a man able to keep three mistresses warm at once and still find the energy to be rude to the servants. You could almost call it jaunty, as long as you ignore the lingering urge to kick the big Gallic jerk in the knee.

The modernity crops up in some canny bits of casting too, especially when Clotilde de Marelle arrives and turns out to be Christina Ricci in full bloom. It's a little tough to see Ms. Ricci as a natural product of 1890s Paris, but no trouble at all to see her as the most modern-minded and resilient notch on Duroy's cummerbund. The three actors playing Duroy's conquests mesh like gears, which is why "Bel Ami" may be Duroy's story, but "Bel Ami" feels solidly like a woman's picture — or would, if they ever stopped collapsing at Duroy's merest smolder. Kristin Scott Thomas swoons giddily over Mr. Pattinson in a hot flush of physical comedy; Uma Thurman stands her ground for longer before keeling over onto the mattress, with an English accent husky enough to suggest Fenella Fielding after a lifetime on the brandy.

Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod are stage directors of impeccable pedigree; and "Bel Ami" is a film of speech and gesture and mannerism rather than anything more showy. They do though appreciate the impact of the statuesque Ms. Thurman posed in her very duck-egg blue drawing room; a woman about to be undone along with her corset. That the undoer is a bit of a blank isn't really the fault of Mr. Pattinson, who makes a decent — if rather young — cad, with a nice line in lost temper. This run-through of the story seems happy to emphasize the way three (or four, by the end) cosmopolitan, competent women still lose their bearings when confronted with a male pinup whose greed is hardly camouflaged. Greed being good, Duroy ends up with all the marbles anyway — a predictable outcome for pinups in 1890 and several centuries on either side.


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