The year is 1890 and a young soldier, Georges Duroy, returns to France from the battlefields of Algeria. He's played by Twilight's Robert Pattinson, who revels in the opportunity to shed his pin-up image and embark on a bonk-a-thon through the Parisian elite.
Pattinson's most famous screen character Edward Cullen may sustain himself on blood, but there's something equally vampiric about his portrayal of Duroy - a man with cold, darting eyes whose unquenchable thirst is for power and status. Driven by a life in poverty, Duroy's chance encounter with old army colleague Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister) leads him into higher social circles and a job as a newspaper writer (despite being barely literate).
His brooding charisma and striking looks quickly make him a favourite among the wives of the influential (who christen him 'Bel Ami'), and before long he's leaping into a love nest with Clotilde (Christina Ricci). The death of Charles leads Georges to marry Madeleine (Uma Thurman), but when his new bride proves to be equally as devious and conniving, his eye begins to wander to Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her newspaper-owner husband Rousset (Colm Meaney).
Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod bring together a well-dressed, strongly-acted take on Guy de Maupassant's Belle Époque novel. With Pattinson at the centre, the filmmakers have a believable seducer and an actor who brings a credible complexity to a man who, on the surface, is hollow and empty.
Alongside Bel Ami's rise-of-Georges storyline, there's a parallel plot about France's impending war with Morocco. This political intrigue never quite finds its footing, as the film dips in interest as Georges's story takes a backseat.
In truth, the movie works best when it's drawing a clear line to contemporary fame culture. Georges's ascent to the top of the social ladder mirrors the rise of countless modern-day celebs, who seemingly find fortune on the back of no discernible talent.
It's easy to see why this character appealed to Pattinson - the Twilight star will be desperate to prove that there are more strings to his bow than Edward Cullen, and it's a dilemma Georges faces in Bel Ami as he's constantly undermined and dismissed by his peers.
Bel Ami isn't quite as steamy or hedonistic as promised, but it's a perfectly serviceable period romp that gives its leading man a platform to display his acting chops with a talented ensemble of supporting players. Georges Duroy may ultimately be a shallow and amoral screen creation, but on this evidence there's more to Robert Pattinson as an actor than sparkling vampires and swooning heartthrobs.