Overlooked & Underseen: Valmont (1989)
Last week for this column, I covered Rob Roy, a film that was overshadowed by that Mel Gibson movie that shall not be named. This week, I’m taking a look at another movie that was also lost in the shuffle. This time, though, it was lost for a couple of reasons, not least of which was because another movie based on the exact same novel was released less than a year earlier. The other, more well known movie is Dangerous Liaisons (1988) directed by Stephen Frears. It’s a great movie, I like it just fine. It’s gorgeous and opulent and has a great cast. For me, though, I prefer the smaller, more intimate version of the story which is, of course, 1989's Valmont.
Based on the 1782 French novel by Choderlos de Laclos called Les Liaisons dangereuses, the story revolves around Vicomte de Valmont (played by peak Colin Firth). Valmont is what you’d call a scoundrel. Let’s just say he’s never seen a chatte he didn’t want to pet. As you can imagine, Valmont has a lot of ex-lovers; we’re talking a lot. One of these women is Marquise de Merteuil (the glorious Annette Bening). She is a force in her own right. She’s a rich widow and she does what she pleases, even if it means creating havoc in people’s lives. When the two are together, the sparks fly because they seem to love and hate each other at the same time.
Merteuil has a cousin, Madame de Volanges (Sian Phillips) who has a teenage daughter called Cécile (Fairuza Balk). She is 15 and fresh from the convent. Cécile is set to marry Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones) an old rich guy who has had his eye on her for years. Gercourt is, of course, a lover of Merteuil and when she finds out he’s about to marry her virginal cousin, well, she plots her revenge. She tries to enlist Valmont into seducing Cécile so when Gercourt finally gets to “tap that”, well, Valmont would’ve beat him to it. Meanwhile, Cécile is being wooed her harp teacher, Chevalier Danceny (Henry Thomas).
Valmont has his hands full because he is also after Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly). She is a young, married woman who wants nothing to do with Valmont. He sees that she has no interest in having an affair with him so he makes it his mission to break down her will so that he can have her. So, Valmont wants Tourvel and still loves Merteuil. Merteuil wants Valmont but only to bed Cécile. Danceny wants Cécile, who doesn’t know what she wants because she is completely naïve. Tourvel wants to be a faithful wife to her husband but Valmont is making it difficult. Got it? Whew!
Director Miloš Forman’s version of this tangled story is much more scaled down than the Frear’s film. That isn’t to say Valmont is somehow a lesser movie, it isn’t. It just feels smaller, or as I said earlier, it feels more intimate. I think of a lot of it has to do with the way Forman shot this film. Everything is muted; the lighting, the colors of the sets and costumes, right down to the performances. Sure, there is some melodrama but everyone just seems more natural. There’s also some humor thrown in. There’s a sweet moment where Cécile is running through the house retrieving a love letter she left of Danceny. She is sliding around on the slick floors and, at one point, actually falls down. I don’t know if this was an accident or on purpose but it’s true to her character, really being no more than a child.
If you’ve never seen this version of the movie, please do yourself a favor and seek it out. It is well worth your trouble. For this last rewatch, I went with the Blu-ray Pathe release from France. I’ve never seen it look better. Kino Lorber is set to release a U.S. Blu-ray sometime next year.