Georges Duroy (Robert Pattinson) is a penniless former soldier making a living as an office clerk in 1880s Paris. At a club he meets an old friend, Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), with whom he spent three years during the war in Algeria. The friend is well off and invites him to his home where he meets Mrs. Madeleine Forestier (Uma Thurman) and her friends Clotilde de Marelle (Christina Ricci) and Virginie Rousset (Kristin Scott Thomas). Mrs. Rousset's husband is an editor of the conservative newspaper La Vie Française and she helps him to get a job there, initially by publishing his diaries from the war in the paper. Gradually his social and financial standing improves, with Duroy using his wit and powers of seduction to charm wealthy women.