Screenwriter Rachel Bennette adapts the cynical 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant that relates the social ascent of Georges Duroy, a nouveau Parisian. “Bel Ami, History of a Scoundrel,” as one translation subtitles this novel of arriviste manners, observes an opportunist with no prospects’ rise to prominence in three years. Coming from the British stage, co-directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod set this period drama in 1890 (1880 in the novel) and cast Robert Pattinson as the twenty-four-year-old Duroy who women of many ages call “Bel-Ami,” a pet name made from “Bel-Homme” (“Handsome”) and “Bon-Ami” (“Lover boy”). This looker “recalled the hero of the popular romances,” wrote Maupassant. (Harry Reems played the part in a ribald 1976 screen adaptation, one of a half dozen.) Duroy runs into a military pal from Algeria who is now the political editor of an influential newspaper, who tells him what knife to use at table. He is also told: “Even the whores are getting rich” and “The most important people are not the men but their wives.” Duroy finds work as a journalist whose words come from his boss’ wife, who will later become his own after she is widowed by tuberculosis. Many affairs and machinations later, including a toppled government and investments in copper mines in Morocco, he will divorce her and marry the daughter of the boss of his late boss. “Bel Ami” entertains as a costumer with bodices and betrayal. Duroy’s tactical bedding almost adds up to a feminist attack on class, but “Bel Ami” feels too much pity for this boy-toy morally abused by his betters. With Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci, Colm Meaney. 102m. (Bill Stamets)
“Bel Ami” opens Friday at Landmark Century.