cast: Colin Firth, Annette Benning, Meg Tilly, Fairuza Balk, and Henry Thomas
director: Milos Forman
135 minutes (15) 1989
widescreen ratio 16:9
Metrodome DVD Region 2 retail
[released 2 April]
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I have a confession to make. Given the choice between Stephen Frears’ Oscar-winning adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play Dangerous Liaisons (1988), starring Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovitch, and Cruel Intentions (1999), Roger Kumble’s trashy teen re-invention of Choderlos de Laclos’ original novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, I’ll take Cruel Intentions every single time. Favouring older and more established actors, the Frears film is shot entirely in greys and blues and is as cerebral as it is moralistic. The Kumble adaptation is equally moralistic but rather than dressing up de Laclos’ plot as an exercise in psychological domination, it suggests that having sex is kind of fun and sometimes fun things are worth risking your position over. Milos Forman’s adaptation of the novel appeared in 1989 and as such is forever doomed to be in the shadow of Frears film, which is a pity as I think it is a substantially different film with an interesting spin on the original text.
Written in the 18th century as a study of contemporary mores, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is written as a series of letters between the main protagonists describing Madame de Merteuil’s attempts to take revenge upon an old lover by getting another former lover, Valmont, to deflower his young bride. Meanwhile, Valmont is attempting to seduce stay-at-home wife Madame de Tourvel while the young virgin daughter is attempting to deal with the conflict between her duty to obey her mother and marry the older man, and obey her heart and marry swordsman and music teacher the Chevalier Danceny. As the different letters are each written from the different characters’ perspectives, the story they are all writing about is open to a large degree of interpretation. Whereas Frears sees the story as one of manipulation, domination and corruption of the young, Forman sees the story in far less moralistic terms as the universal and eternal story of young people learning the world… a world where people do lie and cheat and manipulate to get who and what they want. Forman’s version is therefore a lot less cold than Frears as rather than attempting to see the story as a series of games; he sees them as real events. Therefore, when Valmont seduces Madame de Tourvel, he is not manipulating or deceiving her… he is seducing her much as men have always seduced women.
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Six years before he shot to stardom and the hearts of millions of women in the 1995 TV adaptation of Pride And Prejudice, Colin Firth was portraying Valmont as a man of great physicality and large sexual appetite who throws himself utterly into the seduction of every woman he locks on to. Firth’s Valmont transgresses the moral codes of his society not because he is a bored and jaded cynic like Malkovitch’s Valmont, but rather because his appetites are simply too large for the mores of the period. When he pretends to drown or stages an elaborate lunch in the garden in order to try and seduce Madame de Tourvel, he is not playing games with her head, he is simply doing what comes naturally to him. Meg Tilly’s de Tourvel is also different from the way she is depicted in other adaptations of the story as while both Frears and Kumble depicted her as a morally upstanding woman corrupted by Valmont, Forman humanises her by making her a woman slightly out of her depth but also sexually aroused.
“I’m not intelligent enough to talk to you” de Tourvel says, walking away from Valmont after their first screen encounter. This perfectly encapsulates the character as not being the sharpest tool in the box but also not interested in games. When she falls for Valmont, she does so because Valmont is a desirable man. She is not lured into corruption or betraying her principles, she just realises that this is something she wants. However, the key scene for de Tourvel comes after Valmont seduces her and dumps her. She stands out in the rain and waits for hours on the off chance of seeing Valmont. Our hearts break for her but the second she has had her way with Valmont she is back with her husband. Forman brilliantly turns conventions on their head here by having de Tourvel as the cynic rather than Valmont. Valmont expresses deep regret and guilt over his treatment of the woman and eventually takes pity on her and takes her back into his bed. However, de Tourvel was not pining for Valmont, but rather for the opportunity to dump him rather than be played with and abandoned. In the context of the emotional honesty displayed by Forman’s characters, the cynicism is striking but also realistic. Forman’s characters are not inhuman manipulators… they are just people.
Nowhere is this better expressed than through the story of Cecile (Fairuza Balk) and Danceny (Henry Thomas). Perfectly cast and every inch a child turning into a woman, Balk portrays Cecile as a naïve young girl who is swept up in the schemes of Madame de Merteuil (Annette Benning, who oozes sexuality). Danceny is a young fool and a lunatic who is easily manipulated too. Gradually however, the pair learn and begin to play games of their own. Danceny turns up to force Merteuil to write a letter pushing his agenda to Cecile, and Cecile herself realises that while it is a good idea to marry for money and position, this does not mean that you deprive yourself of love. At the end of the film Cecile is seen marrying the rich older man while her lover looks on, smiling and joking with his friends in the gallery.
By choosing to ground his adaptation in emotional honesty and real human relationships, Forman produces a film that is far more emotionally involving than that of Frears as well as far more biting in its depiction of humanity. Frears’ characters are so cold and calculating that they appear inhuman but Forman’s are calculating and cynical because they are human and have desires and the wit and skill to try and actualise those desires. Wisely, Forman does away with the moralistic ending of the book and play, correctly interpreting said morality as a sop by Laclos to the morality of the period. Les Liaisons Dangereuses retains its power to this day not because it goes out of its way to tell stories about cynical and manipulative characters but because it is about real characters. If they frame themselves through their letters as manipulators then it is because it makes it easier for them to do evil to others, if they frame themselves as romantics then it is because it makes it easier for them to sleep at night and live with themselves. Perfectly played and perfectly cast, Forman’s Valmont captures what is so great about the original novel.
The film itself is beautifully made with all the money going on sets, costumes and location shooting rather than on the pay packets of Hollywood stars. Shot in warm and vibrant colour that contrasts markedly with the muted palette of Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont is great to look at and contains a number of beautifully conceived scenes. In particular, the moment where Valmont seduces Cecile by dictating a love letter to her. Cecile lies on her bed facing away and Valmont speaks of love and passion while looking in the direction of de Tourvel’s room. Slowly, he slides a hand up her dress. Just as Cecile thinks that the words are destined for her, Valmont knows that the skin he is touching is only a pale substitute for Madame de Tourvel. A point nicely reinforced by his decision to snuff out the candle. At another point we also see Danceny fighting with Cecile’s former husband. The two men clash steel brilliantly and as the fight ends, the man asks the boy why he wants to be in his regiment, “I don’t” answers the boy as he walks off. This scene is clearly meant to set up Valmont’s death at the hands of Danceny, but it also shows Danceny learning to play the game as he gets the chance to measure himself against his love’s future husband without needing to confront him. This scene is then beautifully counterpoised with Valmont and Cecile pretending to fence and Valmont pretending to die, again setting out his future death but also showing Valmont as a man who would rather play with girls than fight with men. These are but two memorable scenes in a film that is overflowing with great pieces of visual poetry. Indeed, it is a testament to Forman’s talent as a director that we can learn so much about the characters with so little expository dialogue.