Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, sex and scandals: Declan Donnellan on Bel Ami

Ignore the blatantly SEO-ed title and the article isn’t that much of a sell out.

Written for Spoonfed

Declan Donnellan, co-director of Bel Ami, is positively effervescent on the phone. With fellow director Nick Omerod sitting next to him, he’s brimming with stories about Robert Pattinson’s commitment, Uma Thurman’s expressive face and the process of film directing which he’s thrilled by and in awe of. He talks corruption and women, envy and death as he promotes the release of the Bel Ami DVD which is out now.

The film is an adaptation of Guy De Maupassant’s 1885 novel of the same name. Written with disdain for gossip and the whole idea of climbing the ladder, Maupassant wrote his own epitaph which reflects, in its own creepy way, the nature of Robert Pattison’s leading character in Bel Ami: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing” Maupassant wrote.

As well as boasting the Twilight star and Uma Thurman among its leading cast, the film has Christina Ricci and Kristin Scott Thomas topping the credits. The women are players in the heady realms of Paris’ high society of the late 19th century. They’re a group that Pattinson’s character, George Duroy, storms into and shags to his (and their) delight with the purpose of not just getting his rocks off but accumulating his own wealth, contacts and position in society.

“I think sex is a central part of life” says Declan of the dominant theme in his film. “It’s one of the greatest forces of the world, we ignore it at our peril”.  One of Duroy’s first encounters with the women in Bel Ami sees the master manipulation of a newspaper editor by these women as they champion Duroy as a writer despite his inexperience. It’s an encounter that reflects aesthetic and sexual desire as a driving force. “It’s present in everything however much we joke about it” Declan asserts, “it is central and it does change things.”
But sex is one part of a film adaptation that both Declan and Nick have had on their minds for some time. “I think it’s so much about now” he says, “it’s about journalism it’s about corruption in journalism. There’s a corrupt media who’s trying to cover up the governments invasion of an Arab country for it’s wealth. It’s about politicians getting mixed up with newspapers in order and publishing lies in order to get into power and it’s about that too cosy relationship. It is also about sex and celebrity and getting to the top with very little clout. That’s Robert’s character, a businessman with one commodity to sell.”

And there’ll always be a market for that. “All of these women are married” he continues, “but interestingly, none of them are unhappily married. All of them want to preserve what they have and he’s a bit on the side. The cliché is of the woman stuck in the unhappy marriage and a glamorous young man comes along to save her, but this isn’t that at all.”

Instead, it’s about the games involved in the pursuit of everything. “Somebody once said something to me that was very stupid” says Declan. “It was very interesting but it was also stupid. I was talking about envy and I was saying how terrible it is that none of us can get rid of our envy and this person said well, yes you can get rid of your envy, you can get rid of envy by getting it all. And I thought what a stupid thing to say, you can’t get it all because for one thing, you’re going to die. That’s one bit of ‘all’ that you’re not going to get.”

Then his tone takes on a much darker, more philosophical tone that smacks of Hollywood disillusion and he says: “To be honest, we all want it all, it just depends how we define ‘all’. Some people are very entitled, they don’t understand that they maybe have to give up some things in order to get other things. George sees something that other people have, he wants it so he just takes it. Everything is his or it should be. That seems to be a modern phenomenon, the way we live like everybody can have it all: everybody can have everything, everybody can be famous and rich and everybody can be young no one is ever going to die.”

But he cheers up when he talks about putting the film together. “It was a dream I loved being on set”, he enthuses, “but we were  under incredible pressure. Nick and I worked as co-directors, he’d look after the cameras and I’d look after the actors. I still don’t know really how one person can direct a whole movie because there are so many questions that you have to answer all the time. We’d arrive in the same car, Nick would get out of one side and I’d get out of the other, a pair of umbrellas over our heads and we’d hardly see each other till lunchtime. We were massacred, eaten alive with questions, it was thrilling.”

Nick and Declan are better know for their work as co-directors of Cheek by Jowl theatre company. “In theatre and film you’re bottling life.” he says of the two mediums. “Work in theatre gave us tremendous confidence, especially in editing. (When you work with Shakespeare, you get very used to editing). But in both you’re trying to challenge and surprise the actor into giving you a moment of life. In theatre, you’ve got to help them recreate it night after night, in film it has to be bottled just once.”

Bel Ami is out on DVD now on Blu-ray, DVD & EST, courtesy of StudioCanal

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