Modern Classic Film Review: Valmont

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Libertines and love triangles

(Valmont, Milos Forman, France/US, 1989, 137 minutes)

Colin Firth’s career has taken an interesting turn over the last two years. Following a string of woeful romantic comedies, in which he invariably played the same stiff-upper-lip character over and over again, his last two starring roles have been nothing short of revelatory: firstly the grief-stricken English professor in A Single Man, and now the frustrated, stuttering royal in The King’s Speech. But it is easy to forget that Firth wasn’t always so inviting of critical praise. So it is interesting, at this juncture, to revisit some of his earlier work.

Valmont, in which he plays the title character alongside Annette Bening’s scheming temptress, the Marquise de Merteuil, is a relatively faithful adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Released only a year after Stephen Frears’ 1989 version, it’s far less celebrated than its cinematic predecessor – and watching it, the reason for this soon becomes clear.

This is by no means a terrible film: the period is stylishly evoked, the often complicated plot is well rendered, and it takes pains to refer to, if not capture, the epistolary nature of the novel. But it is badly let down by an overwhelming tendency towards melodrama. True, this is broadly in keeping with its source material which, as a series of heart-stricken letters punctuated by schemes of cruel wickedness, has as its raison d’etre the plundering of vulnerable human emotions. But the Machiavellian machinations of Merteuil and Valmont are executed with little subtlety. We do not secretly admire their bold daring or their unashamed self-interest; rather, they are thin stock characters whose evilness is so cheesy as to be almost entirely comical. When Merteuil instructs Valmont to seduce a young woman there are no subtleties at play whatsoever: no fluttery language, no euphemism-driven rhetoric. Just “I want you to take her virginity.”

Others fare better, however – especially Fairuza Balk, who is heartbreaking as the wide-eyed ingenue Cecile. She manages to convey naivete without straying into annoying infantilism, and the corruption of her innocence is genuinely disturbing. Particularly since the 15-year-old Balk has the appearance and manner of someone two or three years younger, thus generating considerable unease during a scene when she is raped by Valmont.

The film was nominated for one Oscar and one Bafta, both in the category of best costume design. This perhaps sums up the film’s appeal: it looks great, and you can’t fault the often stunning visuals. Ultimately, though, what should be a complex, intense story is reduced to a soap opera that frequently veers into farce.

But – if nothing else – you have to admire the film’s prescience: putting Firth in a wet shirt a full six years before Pride and Prejudice kickstarted his CV speciality of jumping into lakes clad in white linen. Let the records show, it started here.

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