Robert Pattison is a riffraff attempting to climb the social ladder in Bel Ami, but a coherent characterization of his striving schemer is nowhere to be found in this pedestrian period piece. Based on Guy de Maupassant's novel, Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod's film fixates on Georges Duroy (Pattinson), a soldier living in a dingy 1890 Paris flat whose fortune turns when an old army compatriot now working as a newspaperman gives him a job, which in turn puts him into contact with the three married society women—sincere Clotilde (Christina Ricci), independent Madeleine (Uma Thurman), and obsessive Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas)—whose affections he will subsequently manipulate in order to obtain wealth and power. Georges's maneuvers in bed and ballroom are equally adept, and soon his affairs, alongside some convenient twists of fate, have him securing positions of influence as the paper's gossip editor and as Madeleine's husband. Yet fundamental to the proceedings' problems is that there's no center to Georges, no clear impression of what drives him. Despite a late speech in which he verbalizes how his angry ambition stems from a fear of being penniless and a desire to "live," Georges is depicted as alternately a cold-hearted bastard and a man troubled by his own callousness—a dichotomy that, given Pattison's need to vacillate on a moment's notice from pitiless to distressed, creates more dramatic confusion than friction.
Consequently, while the Twilight heartthrob broods with maximum effort, his character's extreme swings in disposition result in a performance of excessive melodramatics. Not helping matters is the routine stolidity of Bel Ami, which attempts with half-hearted enthusiasm to conflate Georges's attempts to screw—and screw over—the women in his life with the French government's plans to invade Morocco, and Madeleine and the newspaper's eagerness to oppose such action and overthrow the powers that be. Personal and political self-interested calculations intertwine throughout, but given the undistinguished limpness of Donnellan and Ormerod's direction, marked by an incessant orchestral score that embellishes virtually every scene, such connections feel consistently limp, and like vain stabs at enhancing the grandness of Georges's ascension to the high court. The three female leads bring sporadic heat to the decorous action, especially in the case of a subtly affecting Ricci. Yet in the face of Pattinson's overstated embodiment of Georges's turmoil, created not only by hunger and fear, but resentment at his apparent powerlessness in the face of his lovers' influence and control over his life, they prove ultimately incapable of shaking the action out of its stately doldrums.