Tech Support: 'Bel Ami,' all dressed up with nowhere to go
Rather like that dully nice party guest whose name refuses to stick in the memory, "Bel Ami" is a film of which I have had to be reminded more than once this year. I saw it back in February, in the wilting days of the Berlin Film Festival, and even then a colleague had to wheedle me into accompanying him. The film evaporated from memory within days, only to crash it once more as London bus banners bedecked with Robert Pattinson's face flashed past my living-room window, announcing the film's March release in the UK. It swiftly exited consciousness again, in a fug of limp reviews and indifferent box office, only to resurface this week, with a fresh round of critical sighs signalling the film's arrival in US screens on Friday.
I meant to review "Bel Ami" out of Berlin, but somehow kept putting it off until the film slipped my mind altogether. Nearly four months later, I still think my tweet review pretty much suffices. The film is a harmless would-be prestige picture whose only real prestige lies in the pilfered genius of Guy de Maupassant -- the 19th-century French author's sly society satire, concerning a dim Parisian cad ascending the political ladder on the backs of his mistresses, here simplified into a ruffled bed-hopping soap, preoccupied principally with getting Pattinson and the attractive female ensemble into tasteful states of undress.
Every bit as anonymous and over-sweetened as its Europuddingy production cachet and untested directing duo of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod would suggest, its virtues -- an indistinct, well-appointed prettiness, a reasonably spiky supporting turn from an oddly cast Christina Ricci -- are as unremarkable as its lumpen, floss-headed flaws. Pattinson pouts effectively enough in it, though his curiously compelling blankness is far better showcased in the soon-to-be-released "Cosmopolis"; Uma Thurman is, as has too often been the case lately, regrettably stiff and mannered; Kristin Scott Thomas, bafflingly cast as a reed-weak naif, has a rare off-day. (If you're looking for her to light up a lame tissue-paper movie, check out "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" instead.)
That's about the size of it: "Bel Ami" is, to pull a Nick Davis quote from his 2009 review of "Cheri" (not coincidentally, a slightly superior Berlin premiere that this one more than passingly resembles), a film for those "who like the house best when there's no real art in it."
And yet I have a curious hunch that -- as forgotten as the film will rightly be by the time the awards-season conversation begins in earnest -- it's likelier than many far better first-half releases to score a single Oscar nomination come January. The Best Costume Design category has been a safe haven over the years for many a sharply dressed, roundly dismissed flop, and "Bel Ami" fits the profile pretty tidily -- not least because Odile Dicks-Mireaux's Belle Epoque-era threads, if not especially witty or character-building (certainly not as much as the designer's more modest, but deservedly BAFTA-nominated, work on "An Education"), are very lovely indeed.
It's a well-known maxim among awards-watchers that, in the Academy's technical categories, more tends to be more -- and the yards of richly colored silk, crinoline and taffeta, bound by further reels of ribbon, that decorate these drawing-room shenanigans certainly make for one of the year's more fabric-heavy films so far. (My notes from the screening are sparse, but at one point the words "SO MANY HATS" were scrawled in exhausted capitals.)
The first-half release schedule has been generous to costume-watchers: between the exotic fantasy garb of the twin Snow White films (see my celebration of the late Eiko Ishioka's threads in "Mirror Mirror" and Kris' interview with "Snow White and the Huntsman" costumer Colleen Atwood) and the more classical corset-porn of "Bel Ami," there's already plenty of stuff up the costume branch's alley to compete with the colder-weather charms of "The Great Gatsby," "Anna Karenina," et al. (This branch is friendlier than most to early releases: "Jane Eyre" stuck in their minds all the way from March last year, though it was a significantly better film.)
I'm not explicitly predicting that "Bel Ami" will be up for a golden statuette in nine months' time -- much less relishing the idea. But the branch that has recently allowed such otherwise undistinguished films as "The Affair of the Necklace," "Troy" and "W.E." to forever brand themselves Academy Award nominees lives to bestow a sense of accomplishment on the "Bel Amis" of this world, rewarding excellence in craft even in films where said excellence seems to exist in a title vacuum. It'd be untrue to say that "Bel Ami" is a film about its frocks -- it's a film about nothing at all -- but it certainly knows more about them than anything else. This might not be the last time I'm reminded of its name.