Remember Jon Lovitz’s “Tales of Ribaldry” sketches on “Saturday Night Live”? He would slap on a powdered wig, arch his eyebrows and purse his lips while telling absolutely wicked and lascivious tales of saucy milkmaids and naughty footmen. It was a great spoof on how something sexy could become silly and labored, all in the presentation.
Which brings us to “Bel Ami,” a dishwater-dull rake’s progress. It’s a throwback to those 1960s movies that hid behind the legitimacy of literary adaptation (this one’s based on a Guy de Maupassant novel from 1885) as an excuse to show some boobies. The results here aren’t ribald or provocative or particularly exciting in any way; it’s just a slog that will appeal mainly to enthusiasts of 19th-century undergarments.
Oh, and also to fans of Robert Pattinson. Those who have been dying to see their screen idol get naked will enjoy the glimpses they get at his unclothed torso, but that demographic is only bothering to read reviews to keep their Enemies Lists up-to-date between “Twilight” releases.
Pattinson stars as Georges Duroy, an impoverished veteran of the French wars in Algeria who is now wasting away in a Paris garret on a clerk’s salary. A chance encounter with his former officer Forestier (Philip Glenister) leads to Duroy getting a sweet gig writing his battle diaries at a newspaper.
Duroy can’t put two sentences together, but Madame Forestier (Uma Thurman) happily does all the heavy lifting. While staying busy not writing, Duroy finds time to start an affair with Mme. Forestier’s friend Clotilde (Christina Ricci) while also buttering up Virginie Walters (Kristin Scott Thomas), the influential wife of his publisher.
There’s political intrigue bubbling up underneath, but “Bel Ami” is mostly concerned with Duroy barely being able to keep his pants on while the women of Paris all throw themselves at his boudoir. Which would be fine, if first-time directors Declan Donnelan and Nick Ormerod had any sense of sensuality or passion or even fun. Instead, they make bed-hopping feel like the dreariest pastime possible, failing even to find the humor of Duroy’s exhaustion from his attempts at keeping his ever-expanding harem happy.
Pattinson, it must be said, seems to be more comfortable here than in his previous attempt at a period piece, “Little Ashes,” in which Salvador Dalí’s mustache wore the actor rather than vice versa. Still, he doesn’t radiate the kind of carnal charisma that would make him believable as the toast of the arrondissements.
Neither Thurman nor Ricci get much to do, but they certainly make the most of the opportunity; Thurman proves that while she may no longer be the ingénue, she can still smolder with the best of them, and Ricci, for once, gets to be sexy in a movie without her character being punished for it.
The punishment, sadly, is reserved for the audience.