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Eve Lucas: Not just a pretty face – and out to prove it

Of course Robert Pattinson is pretty. The new chain gang haircut and stubble notwithstanding, he remains a sight for sore eyes. To add insult to injury, he also appears to have a fully functional brain – as we noted at today's presentation of Bel Ami

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Photo by Eve Lucas

Yes, ladies, and girls, and men, and boys: not only can Pattinson read. He positively scrutinizes university syllabus literature such as that written by 19th century French author Guy de Maupassant, whose eponymous novel Bel Ami forms the basis of Declan Donnellan’s film version, shown yesterday out of Competition: the story of the impecunious Georges Duroy whose avid opportunism is an unstoppable force for self-aggrandizement in Belle Epoque Paris.

So when a German journalist rose at the Bel Ami press conference to ask Donnellan, somewhat pedantically (we all got that she’s read the novel) why he had omitted a scene showing the title character in the poverty of his poor and provincial family background, the actor’s answer was actually (and remarkably) more satisfying than the director’s.

As Pattinson sees it, Duroy actually doesn’t come from a dirt-poor background.  His parents paid for his education, says Pattinson. It’s not about poverty, certainly not about any kind of starving-in-garret romantic poverty. On the contrary:

“He feels entitled,” says Pattinson of his character. He feels “that he should have been born rich.” Adding with British deprecation: “at least, that’s how I saw it.”

The German journalist looks suitably chastened. And anyhow, it’s not as if we don’t get that from the film, the best (just) of the European period dramas shown at the Berlinale. With Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott-Thomas and Christina Ricci playing three women variously attached to positions of power and/or wealth in Duroy’s world, Bel Ami is a perfectly cold and calculated rendition of Maupassant’s objective, realist-naturalist gaze. There is no empathy.

Instead, there is fascination, maybe even a degree of revulsion with Pattinson’s central, wolverine character as he carves his way through the lives of those deemed useful to his progress: watching, learning, turning society’s weapons of greed and ambition back onto itself.

Next up: the inevitable question on Pattinson’s responsibility, as a Twilight star, for the moral standards of young people?

You get an audience from doing certain jobs,” says Pattinson. ”So I think the biggest disservice you can do to your audience is to try and keep repeating the same thing, just to get money. If people are interested in what you are doing, and you try and do films on interesting subjects, then it’s great if Twilight audiences come to watch a film like Bel Ami. I felt like I learned a lot just reading the book.”

Is Pattinson done with blockbusters?

“I don’t know. Having blockbusters in your life is never a bad thing. If you make smaller movies like Bel Ami or the new Cronenberg film (Pattinson’s next project, currently in post-production: ed) and they become blockbusters, then it’s not a bad thing.”

And the haircut? Yeah, he was running and his hair was flopping in his face so he shaved it off. It’s that simple. And when the conference closes with a question on his participation in future film versions of a new Stephenie Meyer Twilight novel, Pattinson replies cautiously:

“I’d be very interested in what Stephenie would write. I just think I’d be too old.”

He sounds more than a little relieved.