“Valmont,” Milos Forman’s spin on “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” is sumptuous suds, a broadly played trivialization of de Laclos’s 18th-century novel of boudoir intrigue. With its callow cast and playful tone, there is nothing dangerous about Forman’s variation on the novelist’s schemes. It’s a naughty costume dramedy in which the erotic conquests of bored libertines are transformed into children’s kissing games.
Colin Firth and Annette Bening play the story’s sexual strategists, the smarmy Vicomte de Valmont and the devious Marquise de Merteuil, whose machinations sully the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly) and the virginal Cecile de Volanges (Fairuza Balk). A generation younger than the cast of Stephen Frears’s “Dangerous Liaisons,” the actors’ ages more closely mirror those of the novel’s young adults and teenagers, but they seem less bedroom Machiavellians than members of a 1700s Breakfast Club, not tragically flawed, hopelessly jaded, ultimately doomed and self-destructive, just wet behind the leers.
The screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere unfortunately focuses on the 15-year-old Cecile, whose upcoming marriage to the marquise’s lover, Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones), sets the story in motion. A woman spurned, the marquise asks her confidant Valmont to seduce the convent-educated virgin, though he is presently sniffing after the saintly Madame de Tourvel. And only when the marquise puts her body up as bounty does Valmont agree to cuckold Gercourt.
Their plans are complicated by Chevalier Danceny (Henry Thomas, E.T.’s earth brother), a lovesick harpist who woos the wide-eyed, Miss Piggish Cecile with childish poetry and clumsy zeal. The klutzy musician and his chubby heart’s desire, though less compelling, recall Mozart and his missus in Forman’s “Amadeus,” which likewise saw youth manipulated by the worldly-wise. But unlike the unfortunate Amadeus, both Danceny and Cecile learn from their pawn-hood and promise to become every bit as cunning as their tutors.
Valmont’s pursuit of the faithful wife, Madame de Tourvel, and his subsequent love for her hasn’t the tragic weight it had in Frears’s version of Christopher Hampton’s play. For one thing, Madame de Tourvel meets a happier fate and Valmont seems to die not of true love lost, but of sheer ennui — not his, but the movie’s. For another, Firth is more of a capering Brat Packer who gets dumped than a callous aristocrat in need of love’s redemption. While no woman I know would share a park bench, much less a bed, with John Malkovich’s Valmont in “Dangerous Liaisons,” he was at least convincingly malevolent, unlike the dandy Firth.
Frears’s version, like his hero, was priss and vinegar, viciously funny and deeply tragic. Forman, who moves the story 50 years back in time, seems to be directing a mini-series, all sloppy opulence. If the people were frivolous, then so is the approach. It’s as if they and we are expected to titter behind our fans, like gossips at the opera, at the folly of the doomed French elite.
While Bening gives a bravura performance, silkily shrewd as the widowed marquise, she’s always a cat, never a lionesse. She’ll scratch you good, but Glenn Close would eat you alive, with a knife and fork, then wipe her lips on a napkin. Close’s is an Everywoman’s performance that speaks for all the women who ever struggled behind the throne. Bening is delicious, but she’s a burlesque.
Tilly, who does not burn as Michelle Pfeiffer did in Tourvel’s place, is limpid to a fault, glowing like a bug lamp with love suppressed, poor dear thing. Pfeiffer gave us a saint, Tilly offers a Sunday school teacher. That’s the thing. When piety is ordered, “Valmont” serves up nicey-nice.
– Rita Kempley, January 12, 1990, Washington Post