While most of the big-hitter reviews of Bel Ami, the British film adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s ripe tale of an impoverished ex-soldier’s social ascent through seduction in belle epoque Paris, were brutal – they were also divided. Some spoke highly of Robert Pattinson’s performance, while others took no prisoners. Ultimately, of course, it will be up to the paying public to decide who they listen to – or if they listen at all. But critics are important in helping (or not) to get people into cinemas in the first place. And in the risk-heavy movie industry, some, more than others, have the ability to influence how a film plays in the market – and how a director or actor’s work is received. Critics have power. Not absolute, but enough to carry weight. Especially in that all important opening weekend when consumers are deciding what to spend their hard-earned cash on.
For this reason, one relies on critics to be fair. Not altruistic or partisan – just fair. And when one considers how much rides on how a film performs, it is reasonable to expect accurate and objective analysis from those paid to deliver exactly that. That’s the theory anyway. The reality can be anything but. The mauling – really, no other word suffices – recently unleashed on Robert Pattinson, is a clear case in point. The common denominator most of these negative reviews share is a presumption that this young actor is some sort of vacant eye-candy, with an equally vacant fan following. This presumption – largely a result of the predominantly teen-targeted marketing used by Summit Entertainment (and now Lionsgate), to promote the Twilight Saga movies – now colors the perception that Pattinson’s popularity is down to fan loyalty, his looks, and little else.
That this criticism in particular, should be directed at an actor who readily embraces literary heavyweights and has delivered emotionally nuanced performances in Little Ashes (2008), Remember Me (2010) and Water for Elephants (2011), is revealing. The truth is, it’s become fashionable to pillory Pattinson’s abilities and the severity of the attacks on his performance in Bel Ami betrays the eagerness of many critics to indulge themselves. Could it be that the now almost customary dismissal of Pattinson is based more on a broader industry prejudice against someone whose fame was acquired on the back of a commercial juggernaught, rather than his actual weight as an actor?
Movieblog agrees. Their reviewer said he was, “pleasantly surprised by Bel Ami,” adding that he didn’t, “subscribe to the idea that Pattinson is a weak actor, a piece of internet gospel that seems to spread around as part of the overwhelming Twilight hatedom.” Rating the film three out of a possible four, perhaps the highest praise they offered was that Bel Ami is, “undoubtedly Pattinson’s film.” Jennie Kermode, at Eye for Film, praising Pattinson’s performance in Bel Ami, wrote, “He certainly doesn’t disappoint but largely because he knows how to play an unlikeable character.” Reasoning that, “because Pattinson isn’t afraid to play weakness, mediocrity or petty spite, he is perfect in the role,” Kermode concluded that Pattinson’s “ability to keep the audience interested in his [character’s] fate,” revealed, “real talent.”
Kermode, an insightful critic, is right. It also says something about Pattinson that he chose a role like Georges Duroy, a character whose capacity for exploitation is about as far from the self-sacrificing Edward Cullen as you can get. Brave enough not to want to stay safely within the “hero” mould that propelled him to uber fame, Pattinson’s decision to take on Duroy (and Eric Packer in Cosmopolis), presents an actor chomping at the bit to explore new challenges – no matter how much incentive Lionsgate and Summit dangle. Total Film Magazine, noting this, gave “full marks to Pattinson for tearing into his Edward Cullen persona with plenty of arse-bearing sex-scenes”, while Cineuropa said the entire cast, “shine in this satire of a vile and corrupt society.” WhatsOnStage’s Michael Coveney described Bel Ami as “almost indecently good and highly accomplished. And although Pattinson twitches his nostrils a little too often, he’s spot on as the louche lothario.”
Robert Beames, a freelance journalist at the UK’s Daily Telegraph, was at least honest about his confusion when he wrote, “For the first half-hour I sat convinced that Pattinson had been miscast: aside from looking a little too young for a war veteran (one whose peers all seem to be middle aged), Pattinson’s permanent snarl and the infinite emptiness of his eyes seem to make a mockery of the fact that his character inspires so much amorous affection.” Beames then 180’s this, saying, “Yet this seems to be precisely the point, making Pattinson an inspired choice,” before deciding, “the jury is out on whether Pattinson has much range as an actor, but he makes for an oddly compelling Georges.”
Moving on to the rather bulkier half of the divide compared to the reviews above, THR critic David Rooney’s swipes at Pattinson seem almost malevolently over-personalised. Completely misreading Pattinson’s interpretation of Duroy’s walking storm personality, as “one-dimensional characterization,” Rooney settles for easy jabs instead of insight. Retooling co-star Uma Thurman’s (Madeleine) film line to Duroy – “I had no conception of the depths of your emptiness” – Rooney uses this as a blunt instrument with which to beat Pattinson, snarking, “The assessment is aimed at the venal character [Duroy’s] but applies equally to the charisma-free performance, in which there’s nobody home.” Variety’s Justin Chang, echoing Rooney, wrote, “It’s one thing to embody a moral void, quite another to look merely vacant, and in scene after scene, Pattinson registers a visible strain in negotiating the character’s shifts from slick, droll charm to animal-like desperation and thwarted rage.”
MovieLine’s chief critic, Stephanie Zacharek, piled on with, “Poor Robert Pattinson. The weight of proving himself, in a movie that doesn’t have the words ‘Twilight’ and ‘Saga’ in the title, is shaping up to be heavier than a vampire’s curse.” More condescension followed. “Pattinson isn’t half-bad. He doesn’t overreach, which perhaps saves him from embarrassment.”
Sight and Sound complimented Pattinson’s, “alert amusedly insinuating performance,” before straying into the ludicrous when they declared, “in close-up [Pattinson’s] face tends to lapse into the bovine.” A curious observation to make about an actor habitually accused of being “too beautiful” to convince in gritty roles.
One could have more faith in the objectvity of some of these highly personalized reviews, if it wasn’t for the stench of the assumption underpinning them. That assumption: that the more commercially successful an actor is, the more their credibility is automatically checked at the door, can be clearly seen in Zacharek’s self-invited psych consult of Pattinson: “He’s trying so hard — why can’t he use those lizardlike eyes, that cat-that-ate-the-canary smile, in the service of making us forget who he is? Maybe it’s because he can’t forget who he is. And that’s the stiffest, tightest collar any young actor can wear.” Except the collar isn’t Pattinson’s. Critics often overestimate how much actors cling to their roles, even the ones others define them by – maybe especially those. It’s doubtful whether today Harrison Ford gives Hans Solo a moment’s thought. Yet for successive generations of children, Solo’s character has become a cultural fix-point. It’s likely Pattinson feels the same way about Edward Cullen.
And so, to Bel Ami.
The film tries simultaneously for a scathing look at the corrupt politics of a corrupt society, but is on much more solid ground when exposing the grim choices facing an outsider in a world where social connections mean the difference between the good life or degradation. Pattinson imbues Duroy with an array of difficult-to-pull-off emotions. Confusion, as he negotiates the alien social circles he forced his way into; rage, at the emotional shut-out he endures in his mostly frigid marriage to Madeleine ( Uma Thurman); disgust, for the needy Mme Rousset and her daughter (Kristin Scott Thomas and Holliday Grainger), and real affection – if not quite love – for Clotilde (Christina Ricci), the one character that comes closest to understanding Duroy. Fantastic performances from these actresses, Phillip Glenister (Forestier), Colm Meaney (Rousset) – and Pattinson, combined with the film’s sumptuously rich visuals, ensure Bel Ami delivers. Pulsing with sensuality, it revels in the unrepentance at the core of its anti-hero and those around him. But most of all, it’s fun. Pure, unashamed, balls-out, sexy, fun.
While Bel Ami is hampered by a reductive screenplay, and its – at times – serrated joins between scenes, these are not meant as disclaimers to any criticism. But it’s also clear that these are realities currently being forgotten by some in the critical rush to nail Pattinson to the wall. David Cronenberg, who directed Pattinson in the forthcoming Cosmopolis, offered some reasons for this in a 2011 interview with Moviefone: “You have a young actor who’s found success with a franchise just like Keira [Knightley] did with Pirates of the Caribbean, who’s underrated because of that. In each case, they’re too pretty and too successful so people are jealous. As a result, people assume that they can’t possibly be good actors.” Since that interview Cronenberg has gone on record, telling MTV in 2011 that Pattinson’s performance in Cosmopolis was, “sensational.” This veteran director’s verdict? “He’s a great actor. It’s obvious in the movie. It’s not like maybe yes, maybe no. It’s obvious.”
Bel Ami aside, it’s likely the debate about Pattinson will rage on for some time yet. Encouraging signs that not all critics are willing to toe the party line, can be seen in Indiewire’s inclusion of Cosmopolis in its wish list of films to show at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Eric Kohn writes, “a dark Cronenberg thriller is reason enough to get excited, but the project takes on a particularly strong amount of curiosity because the leading man role goes to Robert Pattinson (acting opposite Juliette Binoche and Paul Giamatti), who may have finally discovered a director willing to push him in bold new directions.” And at Criminal Complex, Matthew C. Funk, talking up Cosmopolis, described Pattinson as a still “unknown quantity”, adding “it’s when an actor breaks the mould that we see their worth – or lack therof.”
For the moment then, the glass ceiling that limits the penetration of credible franchises into the inner sanctum of prestige awards events is still very much intact. One only has to look at the Academy’s snubbing of Christoper Nolan’s stunning 2009 The Dark Knight to see that. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s (“Katniss” in The Hunger Games) invite to announce the nominations for the 2012 Oscars, an indication that the Academy is – even if cynically – beginning to understand it needs to reach out to a wider audience? Your guess is as good as mine. Maybe the market itself will force the awards committees to make some room at the inn. Perhaps then we’d get an Oscars ceremony that actually reflects movie-goers real choices, and a more fun and relevant awards season in general.
Until then, some solace can be found in the recently announced nominations for this year’s Empire’s Awards for a more progessive and representative awards line-up. As for the Pattinson-bashing, for this maturing actor, it might be worthwhile from time to time to remember his own words about what motivated his younger self: “if someone insulted me, I would get ten years of ambition out of it.”
Game on, Hollywood.