Valmont (1989) *** 1/2
Directed by MIlos Forman. Written by Jean-Claude Carriere, Milos Forman, Jan Novak, from the 18th century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos --freely adapted. Photography, Miroslav Ondricek. Editing, Mena Danevic, Alan Heim. Poduction design, Pierre Guffroy. Art direction, Loula Morin, Albert Rajau. Costumes, Theodor Pistek, Carine Sarfati. Music, Christopher Palmer. Cast: Colin Firth, Annete Bening, Meg Tilly, Fairuza Balk, Sian Phillips, Fabia Drake, Jeffrey Jones, Henry Thomas, et al. A Franco-British-American production released by Orion. 137 minutes. Rated R (adult situations).
Had the late Hollywood mogul Sam Goldwyn been asked about the chances of making a full and faithful screen adaptation of the 1782 classic French "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", he would no doubt had answered: " In two words: im-possible."
The book is the only novel written by a bored artillery officer when he was between 37 and 40. Its epistolary form (an exchange of 175 letters among many people) is far too complex and dense for even a film approximation.
The story is about the unscrupulous love-games of French aristocrats. Vengeful Marquise de Merteuil , whose latest lover will now marry 15-year old Cecile, challenges her favorite ex-lover, the dissipated Vicomte de Valmont, to seduce Cecile . Valmont extends the bet to seducing a faithful wife, Madame de Tourvel. The prize for this will be the Marquise. Valmont succeeds but also falls in love with Tourvel while the Marquise feels like a woman scorned.
In 1988, Stephen Frears came out with his "Dangerous Liaisons" based on a Christopher Hampton play based on the novel. Milos Forman was still preparing "Valmont" but, with his backers, decided to go ahead .He worked with protean Jean-Claude Carriere one of the best screenwriters today and Luis Bunuel's regular scenarist.
While Frears had concentrated on somberness and the unpleasantness of the Valmont-Merteuil strategies, Carriere and Forman open up the movie and make it a splendid wide-screen spectacle, a sumptuous recreation of the 18th century world of the nobility --set some 30 years before the novel's time, mostly to avoid the bulky, distracting costumes of the late18th century.
"Valmont" , as a visual period piece , is worthy of Forman's "Amadeus." It is meticulously researched , draws much from paintings , has superb photography. Cinematographer Miroslav Ondricek does wonders with candle-lit interiors, avoiding murkiness without making you conscious of the indispensable auxiliary electric lights.
With historical veracity, the filmmakers retained the youth of their characters in a time of much shorter life expectancies . Cecile (Balk) was 14 during the shooting. Her young music teacher, Danceny ("E.T."'s Henry Thomas) is 17. Madame de Tourvel (Tilly) is 22, Madame de Merteuil only a little older. The latter is charmingly played by Annete Bening , whose fresh face and smiles disguise a ruthless , diabolical schemer. She sets the overall tone of the film which is light and , in a quite Gallic way, often joyfully erotic. Its kernel is 18th century French "marivaudage" (the dialectics of flirtation), but eventually taken here into nasty dimensions .
The characters are credible , from Cecile and Danceny's naivete and puppy love to the older people. There is a problem with Valmont though. While not as improbable as the earlier movie's John Malkovitch, pleasant Colin Firth is so laid-back , low-key and ordinary that it is hard to see him as a libertine Don Juan. If Malkovitch leered too much, Firth does not leer at all.
There is also a kind of vacuum in continuity, a vagueness about the background of the Valmont-Merteuil relationship , their connivence and about Valmont's feelings for Tourvel. The positive side of this relative passivity is that "Valmont" proceeds without theatricality or verbal pyrotechnics and, in spite of a mix of accents, gives the illusion of 18th salons where morals were loose and much cruelty existed under the elegant veneer of politeness.