It is hard to imagine a time in the western world where the only difference between a slave and a woman was that women were permitted a little more dignity by allowing them to dress up (to serve men) and mingle with them at least in parties.
Perhaps it is not so difficult to imagine women as second class citizens, because the discrimination against women even in the western world - albeit in a different form - continues to date.
And though the prism of feminism is not the obvious way to look at this tale of a man from a lowly background rising up the ladder of a corrupt society with his own corruption, the feminist angle is indeed how the makers want you to look at the film.
Georges (Robert Pattinson), a down on his luck and barely literate but dashing soldier in the 1890s, uses his affairs with society women to rise up in the Parisian society. When on top, however, his male chauvinism kicks in and he tries to control the women in his life, to no avail initially but to disastrous consequences finally.
At the face of it "Bel Ami" is the story of the corruption of Parisian society. But when you try looking deeper at the causes for the corruption, one that comes up will surprise you. For the film asks you, can a society that does not give women their due, ever be free from rot and corruption.
This rot is embodied in the character of Madeleine played by Uma Thurman. Despite being a brilliant writer and strategist and being better at the affairs of men then most men themselves, she needs the support of men for even just a bit of her talents to be visible.
Thus the nincompoop Georges becomes a perfect vessel to carry her brilliance, something which the entire society knows, but does not acknowledge in the open.
Problems emerge when this man, who alternately uses and is used by women, develops jealousy and a desire to be acknowledged for talents he does not possess. In the process he resorts to every dirty tactics in an already dirty society.
Madeleine thus becomes a metaphor for all the brilliant women throughout history including those now, women who have been pushed and kicked to the ground, their faces forced stuck to the dirty mud by the powerful boots of a patriarchal and misogynist society.
Brilliantly adapted from a novel by Guy de Maupassant, the film does a decent job of condensing 400 odd pages into 100 odd minutes. In doing so, gaps become evident and might seem discordant to many. But if you have a healthy imagination, it will actually accentuate the pleasure.
Lending evidence to the director and writer giving it a feminist tinge are many things. E.g. if George's poverty were shown a bit more closely, we'd have found much more empathy for him. But the makers don't want that. Instead they want you to feel for the women trapped in a man's world and in their stupid games.
The film packs many moments and scenes rife with poignancy and brilliant dialogues. In one, Madeleine tells Georges in a fit of rage, "You stupid stupid man. You complete and perfect man."
Stupidity indeed, seems to be the only perfection men are capable of.
Critic: Satyen K. Bordoloi
(4 / 5) : Very Good