A corrupt government in a Western democracy filthy with new money plans to invade an Arab country to rape it of its natural resources.
This depressingly familiar refrain forms the underbelly of the character development in Guy de Maupassant’s 1885 masterpiece "Bel Ami" as well as the latest film version. De Maupassant, of course, is best known as a short story writer -- with the American O’Henry, the greatest twister of endings in world literature (if you’re lucky enough to have forgotten the ending of "The Necklace" from your high school lit class, read it again; totally wonderful).
In "Bel Ami," de Maupassant strove for that realism that was being perfected by his French counterparts, especially the great Emile Zola, whose "Nana," about a whore who conquers and nearly brings down Parisian society, is the female version of Georges Duroy, the titular anti-hero of "Bel Ami."
As in another great French realist author’s work, Balzac’s "Lost Illusions," "Bel Ami" gives us the picaresque history of a provincial son of peasants who comes to Paris to make his way and finds that the quickest path to fame and riches is via the bedroom, while nominally becoming a journalist (political writer in "Bel Ami"; literary critic in "Lost Illusions").
The frank descriptions of Duroy’s sexual prowess and seductions in de Maupassant’s work are the kinds of scenes that gave "French novels" the saucy reputation that was so well satirized in the musical "The Music Man." Having by coincidence just finished the book a few months before the film was released, I was looking forward -- as one always does after reading the original text -- to the film.
Like most of the filmgoing public, I was sufficiently turned off by the critical drubbing (a pathetic 28 percent on Rotten Tomatoes). But, having seen the DVD version, I can say that the film is really not so bad, not bad at all.
At first, I was exasperated by the leisurely pace and elliptical dialogue that seemed to sell short an incident-filled book. But once I got into the filmmakers’ groove, I began to "get" what they were striving for: Since it would have been impossible to recreate the novel, they instead give a sort-of taste of it.