by Elizabeth Stoddard

I once knew a woman obsessed with actor George Saunders. Aware of my predilection for classic film, she’d engage me in conversations about his movies (at that point, I’d only seen him in The Ghost & Mrs. Muir and All About Eve). In those days of the late ’90s, she had researched his life in her spare time and was eager to discuss his talent, which she felt Hollywood didn’t appreciate enough.

Of course this past acquaintance came to mind as I saw the British actor saunter on screen in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami. In this adaptation of Guy de Maupassant’s novel, Saunders plays the lead, Georges Duray, a jaded, power-hungry writer who thinks he deserves more from life. His lady friends — and there are many — call him “Bel Ami.” In Belle Époque Paris, Bel Ami sleeps his way to power. After stating at a dinner, “I do not think it is easy to be a successful scoundrel,” he goes forth and does just that.

One of his conquests is a young widow and mother* portrayed by Angela Lansbury. The camera loves her in this film. Honestly, given the framing of shots and the sumptuous costuming, everyone looks good in this film. Albert Lewin (The Picture of Dorian Gray) inserts visual hints and clues. Duray states a fascination with the character of Punch early in the film, and the patterned stripes of a puppet tent recur throughout — in the opening credits, on the undershirt he wears under a dinner suit, on the floor of a newspaper office, on an upholstered chair in a living room.

Such extra visual touches, as well as careful lighting, add more depth to Lewin’s 1947 film, which has the feel of an Ophüls creation. Indeed, I assumed it was influenced by Ophüls’ La Ronde or The Earrings of Madame de… until I realized Lewin’s movie predates those. I wouldn’t say that Lewin understands as much about his female characters as the German director. Duray/Bel Ami is a misogynistic figure, upfront in his view of women as things to use and detach oneself from (an early pick-up artist, eh?). Never mind that the women of the era — even the upper class, wealthy ladies we see here — have so little power themselves.

The women in his life pine after him or fall under his spell, even after they see what a despicable man he is. Only one remains true to her own nature. Claire Forestier (Ann Dvorak) asserts herself, tells Duray that she must be her own person and be an equal in a relationship. Such a rare statement of independence from a female character in a movie made in this time period!

When I chose to watch The Private Affairs of Bel Ami, I didn’t realize its place in cultural history. During production of this film, a contest was held as to whose painting of the Temptation of St. Antony might be used. Salvador Dali, among other artists, submitted work, but the submission by contemporary surrealist Max Ernst was selected. The lone pop of color in the black and white film is a quick glimpse of this startling work by the German artist.

I’m not sure why this film isn’t included in the canon of classic film — perhaps because it was released through a smaller studio with no big “star”? There’s much to praise about the work, especially if you want to see a 21-year-old Lansbury in gorgeous costumes or you are a dedicated fan of George Saunders.

The Private Affairs of Bel Ami is available on BluRay from Olive Films.

*A bit of trivia: Lansbury’s daughter is played by Karolyn Grimes, who appeared as Zuzu in It’s A Wonderful Life, released a year previous.

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