Two different interpretations of Guy de Maupassant’s ‘Bel Ami’

There are probably quite a few Twilight fans who’d love to have a bel ami named named Robert Pattison. Pattison is somewhat better in the 2012 costume drama “Bel Ami,” than George Sanders who played the same part in the 1949 adaptation of the 1885 Guy de Maupassant novel. Pattison is closer to being a pretty boy than the more substantial Sanders yet both use music to propel the story.

You might know Guy de Maupassant as the author of the fable “The Necklace” (La Parure”) where Cinderella for a night pays a high price after she loses the beautiful necklace she borrowed from a friend and suffers a decade of great hardship to repay the loan shark debt incurred when she buys a replacement unbeknownst to the friend.

Guy de Maupassant’s novel “Bel Ami, or, The History of a Scoundrel” also features women, although the title character is, of course, a man. Bel ami means beautiful male friend (as opposed to petit ami which can mean boyfriend) and the character George Duroy has a beautiful face and figure but no fortune.

The 1949 adaptation which is available for instant streaming on Netflix, “The Private Affairs of Bel Ami” begins with a woman singing,  “Who’ll be deceiving me, who’ll be leaving me, bel ami.” The song will resurface at various points in the movie, but the point is clear, this bel ami, Georges Duroy, is not a good sort of man.

Charles Forestier, Duroy’s former military friend during their time in Algeria, accosts him and recognizes Georges. Sitting down, we learn that Charles has married and become a journalist which is “a fancy word for newspaper man” for the “Vive Francaise” and he is now slightly troubled by a persistent cough. Dressed in fedoras and suits, they look like modern day business men. Georges is working as a clerk and has little money to carry him through the month, but Charles offers to help him by loaning him money and introducing him to his high-powered friends.Charles notes that Georges attracts women, “You’re very successful with women, we must look after that. It might lead to something.  In Paris, it’s through them one gets on quickly most quickly.”  Despite his poverty, Georges has bought himself a little Punch and Judy pair of puppets.

Charles invites Georges to dinner, loaning him money for proper evening clothes. Using some of the money, Georges dallies with a dancer Rachel (Marie Wilson) whom he had treated unkindly just moments before and he soon enough dumps when he meets Clothilde de Morelle (Angela Lansbury)–a woman with wealthy husband who is often absent. He meets her as they enter the Forestier home together. At dinner, they discuss Punch and Judy and Georges is seated next to the daughter and only child of the publisher of Vive Francaise, Walter.

Through Charles, he gets the opportunity to write for Charles’ publication, but after many false starts, he asks Charles for advice and Charles advises him to see his wife, Madelaine (Ann Dvorak). Through Madelaine, he begins to prosper as a writer although some wags find his style seems suspiciously like Charles’ copy. Although Madelaine is his muse, Clothilde has become his lover. In this movie, Clothilde is widowed and not an estranged wife to an often absent husband.

When they bump into Rachel, Georges snubs her, resulting in a confrontation that results in Clothilde breaking up with him. At this point, Georges becomes closer to Madelaine.

“A man in love is not only idiotic but dangerous,” Madelaine tells Georges when she asks to be his friend. It is Georges who suggests a gossip column called “Echoes” by which he means to build or destroy people.

Georges becomes the center of “unwholesome” conversation, denigrating women while seducing them.

The lyrics of the song explain it all to us, “So many women adore him; So many women play for him. Whose arms romance with me each time dance with me?” The answer, of course, is bel ami.

Georges considers, “Marriage and love are entirely two different subjects.”

But Clothilde disagrees, commenting, “A true marriage is the daily bread of the heart. There’s no greater happiness.”

Georges retorts, “There’s no money in happiness.”

Yet Clothilde is undeterred, saying, “If one desires money and success too much it can poison his life.”

Charles conveniently dies and Georges marries Madelaine, but continues his affair with Clotilde.

Madelaine has a suspicious friendship with a certain count who dies and leaving Madelaine money, knowing that this will look like a public pronouncement of an illicit affair. Georges demands some of the money to make things look proper. Madelaine and the publisher Monsieur Walter (Hugo Haas) have been using Georges to help topple the government and enrich themselves. When Georges finds out, he seduces Walter’s wife (Katherine Emery),  but eventually, he frames Madelaine for adultery (a crime) and is able to obtain a divorce. He is able to continue his publishing career by seducing Walter’s young daughter Suzanne (Susan Douglas Rubes).

Du Maupassant wrote for a different country and at a different time. The conservatism of the U.S. on the edge of the 1950s influenced the resolution of the plot. Georges, in his  argument with Clothilde slaps her and despite his love or lust for her, fully intends to marry the young Suzanne. However, he is determined to climb up beyond his plebeian origins by buying a title. The one he wishes to claim seems available and despite going through the proper channels, he, through the machinations of scorned Madame Walters, is challenged to a duel which he loses. The bad guy, George, is brought to justice and the innocent Suzanne is spared. The  moral is that we are nothing more than puppets like Punch and Judy unless we have faith. That’s not exactly how du Maupassant ended his novel.

Yet in 2012, Americans are used to the anti-hero. We’ve had the 1966 “Alfie” with Michael Caine (and the 2004 re-make with Jude Law) and the 1999 “The Talented Mr. Ripley” with Matt Damon. Unfortunately, Pattison is not as facile as any of these three actors at suggesting the workings of a plotting mind, or the oozing sinister nature behind a beautiful facade. Pattison instead alternates between being sultry, or sullen. His anger is not the slow smolder, but at times suggests he suffers from acid reflux.

Pattison is matched up against Uma Thurman as Madelaine. Her Madelaine is elegant and self-assured. She’s a woman married and in love, but not with her husband–either one of them.

In the 1947 movie with George Sanders, Albert Lewin’s script underlined every plot device and the lyrics of the music indicated that nature of his character.  The score of the 2012 movie gives the viewer more subtle cues, and the movie becomes an exercise of elegantly outfitted dolls going through the motions as dictated by society.

We first meet a hungry Georges as he gazes into the windows of a fine Parisian restaurant. At his squalid little room, he has only a stale piece of bread and a broken mirror. George bumps into Charles at a nightclub. Charles doesn’t immediately recognize him, but George reminds him that they served together in Algeria in 1885 where they got ahead by taking advantage of the natives.  When Georges complains about his economic state working as a clerk at a railroad office, Charles confides that he could find work as a journalist and invites him to his house. When Georges protests he has no evening clothes, Charles gives him some money to rent clothes, some of which he uses to hire a prostitute for the night.

At the dinner, he meets three ladies: Madelaine, Clothilde (Christina Ricci) and Madame Virginie Rousset. Monsieur Rousset (Colm Meaney) and his morally righteous wife is Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), are the publishers of the newspaper Charles works for, “La Vie Française.” Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod foreshadow Georges love life by posing him seated in close quarters, facing these elegant three before cutting to the men and with their wives around the dinner table. There, Madelaine suggests he write for the newspaper about his experiences and because it is his first venture as a journalist,  she volunteers to help Georges write his article.

“Let’s be clear. I have no interest in being your mistress. There is nothing more boring to me than an infatuated youth. I know perfectly well that love for you is an appetite. It makes idiots of you all,” she proclaims. Instead she wants to be his friend. A true friend.

Madelaine then confides, “The most important people are not the men. The most important people in Paris are their wives.” As Georges leaves, another man enters because it is Tuesday. Madelaine has a regular Tuesday appointment with the man, Comte de Vaudrec (Anthony Higgins), who gave her the house that she lives in and arrange her marriage to her first husband (Philip Glenister).

Georges becomes the pretty face for Madelaine’s voice,Charles becomes somewhat uncomfortable with this arrangement and soon enough we realize that Madelaine not only is the voice behind Georges, but the woman behind Charles. When Charles becomes jealous and engineers Georges’ fall from the political pages, Georges seeks the aid of Madame Rousset and becomes a gossip columnist.

On the advice of Madelaine, Georges has also taken up with Clothilde and she, or rather her husband, finances their elegant love nest. Initially, he remains faithful to her, but they both understand he must marry. When Charles dies, he eventually marries Madelaine.

Georges comes to understand that Madelaine continues to see the Comte de Vaudrec, who is more likely to show concern for the personal lives of the servants than make civil conversation with Georges. Slighted by Vaudrec and then his publisher Rousset in respect to Vaudrec, Georges takes down the man who calls himself “more powerful than a king.” Betrayed in his personal life by Madelaine, he soon realizes that he has been used by her, the politician Laroche and Rousset, he plots his revenge: the seduction of Virginie.

Virginie is sent nearly mad with love when Georges becomes engaged to her daughter Suzanne (Holliday Grainger). In Rachel Bennette’s screenplay, there’s more emphasis on the emotional life of the women, particularly Madelaine and Virginie. Madelaine breaks down when the compte dies; Virginie collapses and shamelessly begs Georges to take her back, offering him her love.

The moral lessons in the second movie are less clear. The old aristocratic concept of marriage for status or position becomes the morality of the upper classes of the bourgeoisie–as understood clearly by Clothilde (Christina Ricci). She knows Georges must marry and what is most important to her is that he remains in love with her. In the end, while she opposes Georges’ marriage to young Suzanne, she signifies her acceptance and we assume their affair will continue. We can accept Georges as a cad who uses sex for revenge and economic gain, but we cannot accept him as a lover who would hit his true love, Clothilde. That’s one difference between today’s world and the 1950s.

In the novel, after the marriage of Georges to Suzanne one of the minor characters comments that Madelaine has found another mouthpiece–she  likes her men to be  young and unestablished writers. No one objects this practice as long as she remains within the boundaries of the accepted social rules. Likewise, Georges learned his amoral means for monetary gain in the military where, in the novel, he recalls how easily he could take advantage of Algerians. That was one of the benefits of imperialism and being a member of the occupying force. Having accepted this brand of social injustice, how Georges easily makes the transition from racism to sexism. Given a taste of the good life from practicing brutality, he is primed for entering a high society that practices a different kind of opportunism.

The thesis of “Bel Ami” is that the rise of young men in society comes from knowing the right women. Yet there’s the underlying poignancy of the unfulfilled women. None of the women are equal partners in love matches. Madelaine is not a muse, but a woman searching for a male face to front her opinions, but even then, she has her own agendas and is willing to make her willing facade an unwilling fall guy.

“Bel Ami” is a handsome period movie, but lacks a strong realization of the central character. Pattison has the face and figure for a beautiful boy, but not the ability to give a nuanced performance. His performance contrasts the luminous performance of Ricci and the sly performance of Thurman. In the earlier film, “The Private Affairs of Bel Ami,” Sanders is  fine figure, but seems a bit old for the part and displays no squalid desperation or barely concealed avarice, and one feels he’s unworthy of Lansbury’s virtuous Clothilde. “Bel Ami” is closer in spirit to the original novel, but doesn’t get our central figure right, leaving a weak center in the middle of this morality tale, and the women spin around without a strong gravitational pull. Both “The Private Affairs of Bel Ami” and “Bel Ami” are available for instant streaming on Netflix.

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