Dir. Declan Donnellan/Nick Ormerod, UK/France/Italy, 2012, 102 mins
Review by Carol Allen
It will be interesting to see how Twilight fans take to seeing their favourite vampire in such a different role. Pattinson plays Georges Duroy, a former soldier of humble origins, intent on climbing the social ladder in Paris of the 1890s. He is the nondescript outsider, hungry for wealth and social success, as we see in the evocative opening scenes of the film. His only assets are his good looks, his sex appeal and one piece of good luck, when in a low dive frequented by prostitutes he bumps into Forestier (Philip Glenister), a former comrade from their days fighting in Algiers and now a newspaper man, who boasts that his publication will soon bring down the French government and foil its attempts to expand from Algiers into Morocco.
Forestier invites him to dinner at his home, where Georges meets Forestier’s wife Madeleine (Thurman), the newspaper’s editor Rousset (Colm Meaney) with his devoted spouse Virginie (Kristen Scott Thomas) and the flirtatious and pretty Clotilde (Ricci). Madeleine is taken by the young man and suggests he writes a piece about a soldier’s life in Algiers, which she then writes for him and which gets him a post on the newspaper. An intelligent and independent woman, she refuses to become Georges’s mistress but points him in the direction of Clotilde, with whom he embarks on a passionate affair, all expenses paid for by her. When he is sacked by Rousset, after his total lack of writing talent becomes evident, Georges then turns his charms on Virginie, who gets him his job back, but to revenge himself on her husband, he ruthlessly seduces her. Once she is his devoted slave, the then cruelly discards her, turning his attention yet again to the ever forgiving Clotilde, until a better opportunity to further his rise in society presents itself.
Based on a novel by Guy de Maupassant, this is a bitter and ironic tale which belies the beauty of its characters and settings with an anti-hero, who is mendacious, weak, not very bright but totally ruthless, when it comes to achieving his goal. He is an example of how a mediocrity can get what he wants if he wants it enough – one of the ways, claim Donnellan and Ormerod, where the tale echoes the contemporary world. The strong characters in the film are the women, particularly Madeleine, who fights against the subservient position of her sex by trying to affect the politics of her time through the men in her life. But even she, clever though she is, is out manipulated by Georges. Ricci in particular is very good as Georges’s only real love Clotilde, whose charm and girlish prettiness belie her strength of character, while Scott Thomas is moving as the cast off matron, whose life he ruins.
Donnellan and Ormerod, the creative power behind the influential Cheek by Jowl theatre company, make a creditable directing team debut here. And it is good to see Pattinson being stretched as an actor, showing a different set of dramatic teeth – more vulpine than vampire.