Just to pique your interest: the plot concerns two former bed mates heavily into sex games. She’s a widow; he’s a playboy. He yearns to get her back in the sack for one night. Fine by her, but she wants two favors first: Seduce a fifteen-year-old virgin, and turn a goody-goody married woman into a slut.
Sound familiar? It should. Think of eighteenth-century France with scads of elegant costumes, powdered wigs and heaving bosoms. Just last year, director Stephen Frears told the story in the justly acclaimed, multi-Oscar-nominated Dangerous Liaisons, starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. Before that, there was Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the London and Broadway stage smash by Christopher Hampton on which the Frears film was based. Before that, in 1959, was French filmmaker Roger Vadim’s modern-dress account. And before all of them, in 1782, was the classic novel by Choderlos de Laclos, written as a series of letters.
Now comes Valmont, which director Milos Forman (Amadeus) and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) have “freely adapted” from the book. If I prefer the Frears film because of the savage way it mirrors contemporary sexual and political aggression, this is not to denigrate Forman’s approach. Instead of going for the jugular, Forman reaches for the heart.
The film is rapturously beautiful, enticing us into a lush, aristocratic world. Colin Firth’s engaging portrayal of Valmont bears little resemblance to the viper that Malkovich played. Despite his cruelties, Firth’s Valmont is a childlike, even childish, romantic. Certainly Valmont’s elderly aunt, played with scene-stealing deviltry by Fabia Drake, sees him that way.
The widowed Marquise de Merteuil (Annette Bening) sees Valmont, a former lover, as a valued friend but a fatal attraction. As a woman in a prefeminist society, she wages a devious war against male domination. When her lover (Jeffrey Jones) scorns her in favor of the virginal Cécile (Fairuza Balk), Merteuil entices Valmont to deflower the bride-to-be. When Merteuil feels shamed by the virtue of Madame de Tourvel (a bland Meg Tilly), she enlists Valmont to turn this pious judge’s wife into an adulteress.
Bening, a stage actress (Coastal Disturbances, Spoils of War), is magnetic in her first major film role. Close played a woman whose twisted psyche had long ago hardened her face into a mask. Bening shows the effort it takes Merteuil to keep her feelings under wraps. Merteuil can’t trust the feckless Valmont to return her love, so she withholds it. When Merteuil briefly lets her rage show, the moment is shockingly vivid. “Tell me,” she asks Valmont bitterly, “which of us will betray the other first this time?”
Casting the film with young actors was a Forman inspiration. In a subplot involving Cécile’s crush on her seventeen-year-old music teacher, Danceny, played by E.T.‘s Henry Thomas, Forman hints at the innocents Valmont and Merteuil were before greed and ambition warped their better instincts. Forman gives us nothing funny in the sight of Merteuil’s decking out Cécile like a whore, nothing sexy in Valmont’s indifferent rape of Cécile, nothing heroic in Valmont’s futile duel with Danceny. Overlong and marred by clashing accents and acting styles, Valmont lacks the wit and erotic charge of Dangerous Liaisons. But Forman’s vision is, finally, more humane, more devastating.