Paris, 1880s. Exceptionally handsome, smart, charismatic and resourceful, George Duroy (Robert Pattinson), known to his friends as Bel Ami, is offered a job as a journalist on scandal newspaper La Vie Francaise and soon makes a great success of his new career, ascending the ranks from lowly reporter to chief editor. But he also comes face to face with the realities of the corrupt Parisien high society in which he lives: the sleazy colleagues, the wily financiers, and manipulative mistresses. He swiftly learns to become an arch seducer and blackmailer, in a world where love is only a means to end. He will stop at nothing to move into the high echelons of Paris society. Duroy will seduce, manipulate and charm the most powerful and beautiful women of Paris in order to increase his power base. But at what cost to those around him?

Story only skin deep in sexual soap opera.

1890s Paris feels a lot like 1980s Dallas in Bel Ami, a bodice ripper that yearns to be taken seriously. But just like the reputation of its leading man Robert Pattinson, it never quite convinces. First-time directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Omerod struggle to find the right tone to match their sumptuous vision, instead settling for crowd-pleasing close-ups and grand histrionics over insightful dialogue and well-rounded characterisations.

Based on the 1885 novel by Guy de Maupassant (or rather, its 1903 English translation, retitled The History of a Scoundrel), Donnellan and Omerod introduce ex-soldier George Duroy (Pattinson) as a desperate man, alone in a dank attic, struggling in a society that has no time for his past heroics and present low standing. A chance encounter with an old war buddy (Philip Glenister) leads to a job as a columnist with agitant broadsheet 'La Vie Francais'. Its editor, Rousset (Colm Meaney), envisions Duroy recounting his war horrors will be a magnet for public support.

Duroy can’t write, so he draws upon the expertise of Forrestier’s wife and grand society dame, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), to secretly pen his remembrances. Now flush with cash and the toast of high society, Duroy – or 'Bel Ami’, as the strapping young man is known – makes his move on Madeleine. She spurns his advances, instead guiding him to the lithesome Clotilde (Christina Ricci, a standout). And so is spun a loopy web of stark immorality, dark emotions and fractured innocence that will eventually involve Rousset’s wife (a hammy Kristin Scott Thomas), daughter (Holliday Grainger), and the French government’s plans to invade Morocco.

Pattinson’s curse, apart from seeming altogether too young for the part, is that his acting still seems bound to the expectations of the Twilight demographic. From his breathy vocal delivery, pouty curiosity and pearly-white grin, to the teary emoting and coy flash of his bare bottom, Pattinson appears every inch the teen idol Hollywood has spent the last half-decade constructing.

Donnellan, Omerod and screenwriter Rachel Bennette may have been better served by updating the source novel to modern times (as was done with the very successful Cruel Intentions, Roger Kumble’s 1999 refit of Les liaisons dangereuses). No doubt Pattinson’s smug hipster-swagger would’ve been far more believable in a present-day setting.

That said, Bel Ami is beautiful to look at and bounces along at a jaunty rhythm that maintains interest. The expectation that another adaptation of Maupassant’s book must be rich in meaning and profundity, which this film is most certainly not, hangs heavily over the film. Instead, it finds its feet as a bed-hopping, back-stabbing guilty pleasure, and can be enjoyed sufficiently in that context.