Valmont (1989)

D: Milos Forman
S: Colin Firth, Anette Benning, Meg Tily

It is unfortunate that Milos Forman's version of Choderlos De Lalcos' novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses should have come out only one year after Stephen Frears' film version of Christopher Hampton's hit stage adaptation. Dangerous Liaisons was wittier, sharper, closer to the novel, and was put across with verve by a talented cast. This meant that Forman had commercial and critical strikes against him before he even got to first base with Valmont:. The story was stale to the public, and the press had already given it its shot. That he chose to make a slow and studied film which ran for over two hours was an inevitable strike three. The failure of the film both with audiences and commentators then comes as no surprise. But this rendition of the 18th Century French tale of the sexy, unscruplous rake Vicomte de Valmot (Colin Firth) and his love/hate relationship with ruthless, manipluative former lover Marquise de Merteuil (Anette Benning) has a distinct and consistent approach to the story which makes it quite a different viewing experience from its predecessor.

It interprets and inflects the basic plot of the novel and shifts the focus in doing so. While holding onto the central Valmot/Merteuil dynamic, it gives greater emphasis to the sub-plot surrounding the deflowerment of a fifteen year old bride-to-be Cecile Volanges (Fairuza Balk) in revenge for the Count de Gercourt's (Jeffrey Jones) abandonment of the Marquise rather than the conquest of the devout Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tily) which was the central focus of the Hampton/Frears version. It also takes a more realistic tone, abandoning much of the melodrama. Instead, it treats its characters as human beings; as social and sexual animals involved both with other people and with a particular social world. Their reactions and interactions are then studied from afar with a quiet cinematic style more akin to the sombre observations of the social scientist than the sweaty lip-smacking of the voyeur.

This gives greater freedom to the actors to make their characters into fully rounded individuals. Colin Firth rises well to the challenge of playing Valmot. He manages to elicit the necessary sympathy and cruelty in believable doses. Though he does not mount a convincing battle of wills with Tily's too-easy charms, he fares better squaring off against the rest of the cast, especially in ensemble scenes. Anette Benning is less successful as the Marquise. She spends too much time grinning and laughing to allow us to penetrate the character's complex masks and does not seem quite as battle-scarred and hardened as the part demands. In the heavily truncated role of Tourvel, Tily is decorative and earnest, but given no real opportunity to flesh it out. There is no sense of inner conflict here, and her eventual surrender is never in doubt. Young Balk is generally good as the unfortunate Cecile. She convincingly captures the nuances of a character torn between emotions, lovers and obligations she barely understands. She is wooed admirably by Henry Thomas (a long way from E.T) as the unflappable Chevalier Danceny. As the Count de Gercourt (physically absent in Dangerous Liaisons), Jeffrey Jones is very effective and used to the full in small doses. Fabia Drake (who died shortly after the film's completion) is also very enjoyable as the elderly matriarch Madame de Rosemonde.

But the film suffers from its muted drama. Forman paints the world in such steadfastedly ordinary tones (with occasional comic/farcical asides), that it rarely enflames the kind of passion suggested by the basic story. Characters face off against each other with the subtle facial twitches of concealed emotions and seething rages which signal a true character piece. When the big confrontations come, they seem sudden and ferocious in a way which is perhaps understandible, but not dramatically involving. The plot seems to unfold at random and does not provide proper motivation for the characters' actions. It serves instead as a backdrop to the characterisation, and comes off an unconvincing third to the acting and set and costume design. Its downbeat, irresolved climax then seems unrewarding. It lacks the necessary catharsis of truly satisfying drama.

It is arguably the more cinematic of the two 1980s versions of the tale, and may hold up in the long run as a more subtle interpretation of the human condition which is more telling of the age in which it was made than the hugely enjoyable but admittedly caricature-prone stage version. But in that, their differences are interesting and illustrative for those who can bear the simple fact that once you've seen one, the other will not surprise you.

This is not a film for the casual viewer, but does not really offer enough for the experienced cineaste either; other than as a kind of historical footnote. This leaves it one which is bound to be unfairly overlooked or defensively overpraised by its admirers.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.