Over the years, there have been many examples of different film versions of the same story. For instance, Frankenstein is remade regularly, and did you know that The Maltese Falcon had been filmed twice before its classic 1941 version hit the screen?
But rarely has a novel been adapted twice, with major productions, in such proximity to each other as Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the 1781 novel by Choderlos de Laclos, which was filmed last year as Dangerous Liaisons, starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
While Dangerous Liaisons was being filmed, so was Valmont, a version of the same story, adapted by Jean-Claude Carriere and directed by Milos Forman. Forman, the man who made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus, is notorious for his painstaking approach to filmmaking. Valmont has been in production for years, and he could hardly have been thrilled when Dangerous Liaisons, released last Christmas, did nicely at the box office and was honored with a batch of Oscar nominations.
But it is always interesting to see how two different directors will treat the same story. Liaisons director Stephen Frears found a cool, brisk style with which to chart the devious doings of the sexually adventurous aristocrats. Forman is more deliberate, opulent, and romantic. The emotional life of these characters is closer to the surface.
Valmont (Colin Firth, of Apartment Zero) is a well-traveled seducer. But the purity of the married Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly) has him stymied. He cannot seem to break her down. And, in the process, his heart may be moving a bit.
“Can a man change?” he asks his confidante and soulmate, the widow Madame de Merteuil (Annette Bening). “Yes, for the worse,” she tells him, a typically terrible response. Madame de Merteuil is the hard diamond that keeps Valmont ticking. Her wicked plots trap everyone in her web. To strike back at her lover (Jeffrey Jones), a nobleman who plans to marry an adolescent virgin (Fairuza Balk), Merteuil enlists Valmont in a scheme to deflower the girl. Meanwhile, she bets him her own favors that he can’t bed down with the angelic de Tourvel.
Fans of Dangerous Liaisons will recognize the characters, but Valmont is different in detail and motivations. Forman’s film is more expensively lush and has more warmth, although I think the film takes an odd turn in its last act, and has at its core too great an enigma surrounding the character of Madame de Merteuil.
Forman’s tendency to cast lesser-known actors works nicely. Firth makes a more dashing Valmont than John Malkovich, although Malkovich’s performance seemed more charged and daring. But that may be because Valmont is almost a secondary character here; Madame de Merteuil is the central figure, and newcomer Annette Bening makes the most of the role. Bening, oval-faced and even-voiced, takes command of every scene she is in. We will be seeing more of her.
First published in The Herald, January 14, 1990
I would like to see this again. It certainly has a bunch of good people at an interesting moment. Bening’s next film was The Grifters. Firth and Tilly began a relationship on this movie that included having a child together. Strange to think that this was Forman’s follow-up to Amadeus, and he only made three features after.