So, while my roommates were away from the apartment last week, I managed to watch a few British historical and literary dramas on Netflix, and as one might guess, that led a lot of really weird films to be added to the list of films that I might want to see. Among those films was a film I had not heard about and whose description seemed a bit interesting, and so without looking too carefully at the actors who were in the film, one afternoon I watched a film with a french title and a lot of women in the main picture called “Bel Ami,” and in some ways I wish I had those two hours back so I could have watched something else. On the other hand, though, the film did lead me to ponder a lot of questions that I might not have thought of otherwise concerning both film adaptations as well as the question of what makes a man.
The premise of Bel Ami is a faintly preposterous one, although as it was based on a French novel in the late 1800’s, I suppose that is to be expected. This is the same time and place that brought us La Boheme and Phantom Of The Opera, it must be remembered. The hero of the movie, whose name I cannot be bothered to look up on IMDB, is a poor semi-literate veteran of French colonial wars, son of an illiterate peasant farmer who is even worse off, who is living in difficult conditions in Paris while everyone else is making money hand over fist. However, very early on we learn that he is not a principled man with self-control, given that when he receives five francs to make himself presentable for an interview as a freelance reporter for some political magazine (the equivalent of a sarcastic blogger, I guess, although the main character is not literate enough to write his own articles, but must have others dictate them to him in more refined language), he spends at least a frank or two of that on a prostitute, which later ends up costing him considerably more than a couple francs when he is trying to impress his first mistress on his faithfulness to her and the strumpet shows up a most inopportune time.
A major part of the plot of the movie is based on the supposed attractiveness of the main character, who pouts and simpers but does not cut a particularly dashing figure. About the best moment we see him in is playing with the sweet and precocious daughter of his first mistress, who happens to be married to a man who is too busy for her, a woman who ends up totally besotted with him, even putting him up in a love nest so that they have a place for their adulterous liasions. Anyway, while one woman is madly in love with him, he is obsessed with another woman who is married to a fellow who has a fatal encounter with tuberculosis but the kept woman of a count and a rather serial philanderer herself. Apparently the protagonist thinks nothing of his own sleeping around but erupts in fury when his wife does the same thing, which seems a bit of a double standard. In addition, this same upstanding fellow has seduced the somewhat older wife of his boss (not a wise proposition), and ends up (in the dramatic “betrayal”) eloping with his boss’ daughter and embarrassing her father into giving her to him as her bride, not because he has any genuine interest in her whatsoever, but simply for her immense 30 million franc dowry. We are supposed to believe this simpering and social grabbing fellow is irresistible to women simply because he is played by the incomparable Robert Pattinson.
Anyway, I go through this tedious and immoral plot for at least a couple of reasons. One is that throughout the film many of the supposedly wealthy and macho men of this film, most of whom are cheating on their wives, casual gamblers, chain smokers, and generally people of low moral character, look down on the main character because of his attractiveness to women. While the attractiveness of William Pattinson to women (as opposed to my distinct lack of success) is something that I cannot explain, regardless of whether his skin is shiny or not, a man is not less of a man because he particularly enjoys the company of women or because women like him. His manhood, such as it is, must depend on other grounds, and to insult a man because he happens to be a ladies’ man smacks of simple jealousy. Throughout the movie, in this light, the term Bel Ami appears as a term of endearment by women, but a term of slander from men who are perhaps insecure of the affections of their own womenfolk, even if they do not appear to care enough to be loyal or faithful or attentive themselves. Nor do the women in this decadent society appear any more noble or faithful themselves.
The ending of the movie depends on something particularly notable, and something that is a matter of such seriousness that I am surprised that I have not noticed its effect in my life more often. The wealthy heiress of the protagonist’s boss is attracted, even besotten, with the protagonist largely because she is forbidden to go after him. For some people, that which is forbidden takes on an attractiveness far beyond what it would otherwise possess simply because it is forbidden. As a human being, I cannot pretend to be immune to this lure myself, but it is a lure which has wrecked a great deal of tragedy upon human history from the time of Eden. Lest we forget, mankind fell in the Garden of Eden, as Genesis reads, because Adam and Eve could not resist the one tree that was forbidden to them by their Father and Creator. We have not advanced very far since then. Indeed, if someone wants to make something attractive, one of the easiest ways is to make it forbidden. One of the more vexing problems of our time is that so little is forbidden that life has lost its pleasure for many people, except that those things that are still forbidden are especially forbidden. We human beings are not so different now than we were at the dawn of man when we fell from such native innocence as we possessed into the painful knowledge of Good and Evil. In examining the film, what troubled me the most was that I could not look down either on the ambition of the protagonist or the fatal desire for forbidden fruit on the part of his blushing young bride or any of the other characters who shared the same fatal longing. For all my native restraint, I am not so far above such temptations so as to be immune to their charms. For I too am a fallen man working out my own salvation with fear and trembling, just like everyone else, and sometimes we must pay a heavy cost because of the truth of our natures.