With "Valmont" (at the Coronet and Showcase), Milos Forman takes us back between the sheets of Choderlos de Laclos' great 18th-Century novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," back to all those seducers-with-abandon, and for a few lulling scenes he seems to be on to something.
In keeping with the period, he's dropped the age of his sexual combatants, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. They're now in their 20s, and their erotic machinations seem more like the careless intrigues of youth instead of the poisonous, knowing maneuvers of maturity. If it takes the "dangerous" out of the equation--and it does, oh, how it does--the reward is Annette Bening's dazzling Marquise, red-haired and purring-voiced. To have a Marquise with buoyancy and humor, whose sweet concern might even be sincere, is a startling idea; you can see how easily her fellow aristocrats might be taken in by this warm, beautiful young widow. In Stephen Frears' version last year, "Dangerous Liaisons," the wonder was that anyone would believe the Merteuil of Glenn Close for a second; her layers of deceit were so elaborate and so transparent.
"Valmont" is gorgeous, and for a while you can coast on its costumes and production details. The novel's period has been moved back 50 years, turning things into a Watteau dream. But seductive as his surfaces are, Forman's tack doesn't hold for long. His changes have muted a great tale of betrayal by intelligence and he has blunted the malign inevitability of Laclos' story.
By changing the fate of key characters, the innocent 15-year old Cecile (Fairuza Balk) and the deeply pious Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly), Forman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere may have thought they were underlining the hypocrisy of the day. Instead, their conclusions are arch and obvious, like the wink from the elderly aunt at the film's end.
The story unfolds roughly as before: The action is set in motion by the imminent marriage of convent-educated Cecile to Gercourt, the ongoing lover of the widowed Merteuil. To get even with Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones), Merteuil schemes to have his 15-year-old's virginity taken by her confidant and equal libertine, Valmont (Colin Firth).
Valmont is bored with the assignment of seducing a child who would "probably flop on her back out of simple curiosity." Only when it becomes a bet between the two equals in deviousness does he agree to take it on. If he wins, he may claim Merteuil (although not for the first time) as payment; if he loses, he is to shut himself in a monastery and repent his sins.
Visiting the estate of his elderly aunt Madame de Rosemont (Fabia Drake), Valmont unexpectedly finds a quarry of his own, the unshakeably faithful Tourvel, whose older husband, a judge, is away on business. This should be the story's tragic liaison, with shattering consequences; to have its effect trivialized is perhaps "Valmont's" worst sin. (Its R rating is for its ongoing seductions, sometimes accompanied by selective nudity.)
Losing the great saga of Tourvel, we spend the first third of the film on Cecile and her entanglements. And since she goes on to one of the film's newly minted social triumphs, Cecile becomes little more than a John Hughes heroine in period clothes who learns that sex is fun and you don't have to tell all. Pfui.
From the first, Forman moves to emphasize details, perhaps afraid we'd miss them. His adolescents--Balk, who is 15, and Henry Thomas as her well-born harp teacher, the young Chevalier Danceny--frisk about, skittering on the parquet floors. ("Return to Oz's" Dorothy and E.T.'s little pal, Elliot, as our young lovers? It's enough to make even baby boomers feel ancient.)
Danceny can't pick up two things without dropping one of them, generally his harp. It's the same "endearing" klutziness Forman used in "Amadeus" and it's even less effective here. A chevalier of that day may have been young; he was also worldly, sophisticated and cultivated, which Forman won't let Thomas play. (He can be believably steely, however.)
If we have a warm-blooded, believable Merteuil, casting Jeffrey Jones as her lover Gercourt is another mistake. Better to let Gercourt live in our imagination. Jones may be part of Forman's stock company, after his dim Emperor Josef II in "Amadeus," but why use his patented smugness here? Even taking into account Gercourt's closeness to the King, to have Merteuil involved with this popinjay makes her seem not calculating but masochistic.
Colin Firth's Valmont is pleasant, a dreadful thing to say about one of literature's most magnetic seducers. Meg Tilly's translucence is more than wasted here; for the first time, it is tiresome. It is lovely to see Sian Phillips as Cecile's rightly alarmed mother, and Fabia Drake's grand, worldly Madame de Rosemont, forever being awakened to discover that her card-playing companions have tip-toed away, is the film's bright-eyed Doormouse.
But to consider "Valmont" in the light of Baudelaire's words on "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"--"This book, if it burns, must burn like ice"--is to see just how far down this ice has been watered.