"Do you think a man can change?"
Two terrors sufficient to condemn the average filmmaker to a lifetime of psychotherapy: a film drawn from the same source material as yours is released while yours is in preproduction, and the interloper becomes a popular, Oscar-nominated hit.
Welcome to Hollywood, Milos Forman.
Forman was assembling a film based on the scandal-spawning 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos when Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears (The Grifters) landed in theaters in the fall of 1988. Frears' picture, with a script by Christopher Hampton adapted from his successful stage play and featuring star turns by such familiar faces as Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer, was an instant smash, garnering seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and winning three golden statuettes (including Best Screenplay Adaptation).
Lesser directors might well have scrapped their projects, but Forman was determined to bring his version of the de Laclos classic to the screen, Johnny-come-lately or no. Valmont is the result.
Facts of the Case
The widowed Marquise de Merteuil (Annette Bening, American Beauty, The Siege) observes with cynical bemusement the wedding preparations of her 15-year-old cousin Cecile (Fairuza Balk, The Craft). Cecile, raised in a convent, understands little of what her new life with her middle-aged fiancé—and Merteuil's current paramour—Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones, Beetlejuice, Ferris Bueller's Day Off) will be like.
The Marquise hits upon a devious plan: she enlists her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (Colin Firth, Bridget Jones's Diary) to introduce the virginal Cecile to the ways of carnal bliss, with a refresher course in Merteuil's canopied bed to be the reward for a job well done. If he fails, Valmont agrees to consign himself to a monastery. (As they say in France: not likely, mes amis.)
Valmont, though, is far more intrigued by the already-married Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly, Agnes Of God), a paragon of wifely virtue who steadfastly maintains that she would never be unfaithful to her husband. Tourvel has resisted Valmont's advances to date, but he senses that her defenses may be weakening. Meanwhile, Cecile has taken up a passionate, if chaste, epistolary romance with her boyish music teacher, Danceny (Henry Thomas, E.T.), which threatens not only her marriage to Gercourt but the success of Valmont's errand. Merteuil slyly begins to manipulate the situation by playing Cyrano for both youngsters.
The ever-swirling cotillion of who's-going-to-do-what-and-with-whom propels the story through numerous twists to its bittersweet conclusion.
Let's dispose of the inevitable comparisons between Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons right off the bat, shall we?
As noted above, Dangerous Liaisons is the film version of Christopher Hampton's play. The best description that comes to mind is that the Frears film displays a more American sensibility than Valmont: it's more aggressive and cynical, and its humor is both sharper and broader. This is surprising, because Dangerous Liaisons was Frears's first Hollywood production, while Milos Forman had already helmed several big-budget films in the U.S., including two for which he'd won Oscars: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Amadeus. But Forman's take on the de Laclos story—drawn not from the stage play but from the original novel—is a "kinder, gentler" variation. Forman's characterizations are subtler; his approach to the story more leisurely and less visceral. Consequently, Valmont—despite its preponderance of American actors in key roles—feels more Continental, and, I presume (though I've not read the book), is more in tune stylistically with its source material.
Forman and co-scripter Jean-Claude Carrière (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) draw us into their "loose" adaptation of the novel by making the characters seem less like plot devices and chess pieces and more like people who, though we wouldn't want to be them and probably wouldn't want to know them, are compelling enough that we care what becomes of them. And even though the machinations of the story are familiar—and aren't difficult to predict even if one hasn't seen the play or the Frears film—Forman and Carrière manage to surprise us on occasion. This holds true especially in the resolution of the picture, which unfolds somewhat differently than Hampton's version, but feels "right" in the context of Forman's direction. Typically, Forman's film is long at two hours and seventeen minutes, but it doesn't drag or seem underedited.
The lead players contribute substantially to Valmont's softer tone. The rapacious, just short of over-the-top viciousness Glenn Close and John Malkovich brought to the characters of Merteuil and Valmont is largely absent in the performances of Annette Bening and Colin Firth. Bening, making only her second feature appearance—she'd co-starred in the John Hughes/Howard Deutch comedy The Great Outdoors the year before—lends Merteuil a playful ebullience and youthfulness missing from Close's Cruella DeVil-in-period-drag tour de force. Firth likewise is light years from the serial-rapist edginess of Malkovich's Valmont. Bening and Firth's characters are callous and cruel, yes, but in a manner that's gleefully wicked, not monstrous. Here we can see the human beings—debauched and jaded, but still with hearts—inside the caricatures. Firth and Bening may be less fun to watch than Malkovich and Close, but they're more real.
Valmont's supporting cast is a mixed bag. On the up side, few actresses better embody genuine wide-eyed naïvete than the young Fairuza Balk did. (Even as an adult specializing in hookers and other bad-girl types, Balk possesses an air of innocence that is consistently remarkable.) Her Cecile is a true child-woman just beginning to wrestle with adult emotions and urges, unlike Uma Thurman's too-mature take on the character. On the down side, Meg Tilly's Tourvel remains a mystery throughout the film, the biggest mystery being what Valmont sees in her. (Is it just my perception, or does Meg Tilly play every role as though the film was shot on an oxygen-depleted soundstage?) Up side: the always enjoyable Jeffrey Jones reconfigures his performance as the Emperor in Amadeus in a nice turn here as the clueless Gercourt (a character mentioned but never seen in Dangerous Liaisons). Down side: Henry Thomas is overmatched as the chivalrous young musician Danceny, though his apparent discomfort with the period costuming and speech pattern suits his character's lack of confidence (and besides, he's no Keanu Reeves). Perhaps the best performance in the film comes from veteran actress Fabia Drake as the not-as-senile-as-she-appears Madame de Rosemonde. With the amalgam of American and European players, the dialogue is all over the place: Bening and Falk really don't attempt accents—at least, if they do, it's not obvious to the ear—while Tilly and Thomas take a half-hearted stab at something vaguely English and fail.
Valmont is gorgeously photographed by frequent Forman collaborator Miroslav Ondrícek. He makes excellent use of color and light, all the better to show off the authentic French landscapes and the Oscar-winning fashions of costume designer Theodor Pistek (also responsible for clothing the stars of Amadeus).
MGM's DVD presentation of Valmont offers an acceptable but disappointing video transfer. Although the source print is clean and mostly defect-free, MGM hasn't done much to maintain consistent image clarity throughout the film. Contrasts vary from crystal-sharp to fuzzy (sometimes attributable to soft-focus cinematography, but not always), and the color balance favors a somewhat washed-out look, particularly in interior scenes. When the picture is good, it's terrific, but where it's been given less attention, it's pretty weak. A middling grade.
The Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is similarly hit-and-miss. The dialogue is well centered and the score fills the soundfield appropriately, but the whole thing has a compressed feel that doesn't add much interest. A French alternative track and Spanish and French subtitles are offered.
As is MGM's pattern, the only supplement is the film's theatrical trailer. Unlike the film itself, which is shown in its original ratio of 2.35:1, the trailer—though still widescreen—comes in at around 1.85:1.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
In case this film and its Siamese twin Dangerous Liaisons haven't exhausted your appetite for this oft-told tale, you may enjoy Roger Kumble's smug, sleazy, modern-dress teenybopper adaptation, Cruel Intentions, also available on DVD. Kumble's version, which stars Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe in the Merteuil and Valmont roles, grovels at the feet of the MTV Generation's lowest common denominator—in short, it isn't very good (despite a positive review here on the Verdict). But if you're an obsessive de Laclos completist, or just enjoy watching bratty rich kids make out, you may want to add it to your collection.
It's a Taco Bell movie choice: do you like your Les Liaisons Dangereuses served up with fire-hot sauce, or is a milder, more complex flavor to your liking? If hot 'n' spicy assignations are your bag—if you prefer the Machiavellian machinations venomous and vile—Valmont may seem a trifle tame for your taste. Go rent Dangerous Liaisons instead. Conversely, if you want to enjoy the gamesmanship and seduction but still respect yourself in the morning, Valmont is a stylish, classy vehicle for your trip to the darker side of human nature.
Valmont is guilty of being an old-school player in the classic style. He's free to go…but lock up your daughters. This matter is closed.
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