moody Patterson
Friday, 09 March 2012

When cads ruled the world

A dazzling new film takes us back to an age when good manners and cups of tea played second fiddle to some VERY bad behaviour, says Kat Brown

Written by Kat Brown

Having spent much of his career weighed down by the sainted vampire he plays in The Twilight Saga, it’s time Robert Pattinson got his teeth into a real, honest-togoodness cad.

The undead brooding that has earned the 25-year-old native of Barnes in southwest London crazed adoration and an estimated £13 million needed to be channelled into someone a bit more complex than a straightforward baddie.

And Georges Duroy, the anti-hero of Bel Ami, the new film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 satirical novel, is, happily enough, that cad. More than a century after the novel was published, the film of Bel Ami still rings an unnerving bell. Fin-de-siècle Paris is steeped in corrupt relations between officials and journalists, and the advancement of people can be based on looks and allure rather than any real merit.

Small wonder, then, that Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, the film’s directors, have said it would cut far too close to the bone to set Bel Ami in the modern day.

The more Duroy progresses from Casanova to cad, the more society (and, grudgingly, we the audience) applaud his gall, an idea that is also provided in a tag line from the 1947 version of the film: ‘All women take to men who have the appearance of wickedness.’

ricciChristina Ricci as Clotilde de Marelle

This is in no small part because, although untroubled by money or ability, former soldier Duroy is blessed with charm, fabulous looks and the killer instinct of a boa constrictor. A chance meeting with a former comrade sets him on the path to becoming a political journalist, just as colonial France is about to topple Morocco, leading to fame for the new writer, if not automatically fortune – and certainly not enough fortune to please the power-hungry Duroy.

‘My Bel Ami guy doesn’t have a conscience,’ Pattinson told the Herald Scotland last month. ‘Most fictional characters are driven by some target, but he is like a reverse character. He’s so content to do nothing and thinks everything should just be given to him.’  

How very 21st century of him. And indeed, money, power and the nickname ‘Bel Ami’ are all gifted to Duroy – even his first pieces of journalism, thanks to the skilful pen of Madeleine Forestier, one of the story’s most intriguing characters. For what lifts Bel Ami out of pure rake-on-the-prowlwith-nice-frocks and into a fractionally less morally bankrupt Dangerous Liasisons is the fascination exerted by its female characters. These do not simply sit around like flowers waiting to be plucked for reasons of plot. As Mme Forestier makes clear to Duroy early on, ‘The most important people in Paris are not the men, but their wives.’

Despite their lack of independence, social and financial, Parisian women frequented the famous salons, building their own knowledge and power above what was formally permitted. As long as one observed social niceties, behind the scenes a woman could, at least up to a point, assemble the life she wanted. Donnellan and Ormerod have assembled a formidable range of talent to play Duroy’s women.

umaUma Thurman as Madeline Forestier

Among the wives in Duroy’s game of sexual eeny-meeny-miny-mo are Kristin Scott Thomas’s virginal, later desperately needy, wife of the newspaper’s proprietor; Uma Thurman as the plotting, worldly Madeleine Forestier, whose editor husband gives Duroy his first break; and Christina Ricci as his ongoing mistress, Clotilde de Marelle.
Bel Ami tempted cast and crew into taking part despite sizable pay cuts, with the cheaper Budapest doubling for Paris. Ricci was particularly keen. Last seen here in BBC Two’s 1960s flight drama Pan Am, the former child star was introduced to the novel aged 14 by her on-set tutor. It soon became one of her own favourites, with Ricci saying, ‘Her love for it had something to do with why I loved it so much.’

Being a fan of a book can often mar the enjoyment of the screen version, due to the inevitable slices and changes to the characters, but Ricci, who has made a career trademark of gothically damaged characters, preferred the new, more optimistic Mme de Marelle.

‘I was actually happier to be playing the Clotilde in the screenplay,’ she told Radio 4’s Front Row programme recently. ‘I like the idea of playing someone who is one of these rare, inherently happy human beings who seems to have never really known a day of angst or unhappiness in her life. We get to witness her experience pain and heartbreak for the first time.’ No prizes for guessing who’s behind that. Yet the truism about horrible characters being the most fun to play lives on. Even Pattinson, loyal towards the saga that made his name, found the dissolute character a bit of a treat after his impeccably behaved character in Twilight.
There’s something fun about going from Edward Cullen to a cad, he admits. ‘Edward so wouldn’t approve.’

Bel Ami is in cinemas now




Despite being a hotheaded man, some of the best advice in the novel comes from Duroy. ‘One always acts hastily,’ he says. ‘One never reflects sufficiently.’ It’s fair to say that none of the cast acted in haste; before filming started, Pattinson spent four weeks reading Donnellan’s book The Actor And The Target and having one-to-one acting lessons. The directors decided that, in time-honoured film fashion, an English accent would do instead of French, which called for dialect coaches. ‘I never feel comfortable doing accents,’ Christina Ricci told Front Row. ‘I always hope that if it’s terrible, someone will be honest with me.’

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