Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Film Review: Valmont (1989)

So a discussion of this film can't begin without first acknowledging Dangerous Liaisons. Valmont and Dangerous Liaisons come from the same source material, the now public domain novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and revolves around the life of these two rich seducers, Madame de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont in later 18th century France. Cruel Intentions is also very loosely adapted from this source, but that's mostly irrelevant here.

What makes this so intriguing is that Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont were released within a year of each other and feature more or less the same plot; there's very little variation. The only true variation comes from the treatment of the material. Dangerous Liaisons aims for a more cerebral and brutal treatment of the novel, whereas Valmont aims for a slower, playful and more passionate play on the novel. Whether it succeeds is entirely another question.

Annette Bening, in her second screen role, plays Madame de Merteuil; whereas Colin Firth plays Vicomte de Valmont. The casting is definitely interesting, and I would argue that Colin Firth is a much more natural casting than John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons. The rest of the cast is off-and-on, Meg Tilly is a depressing wash as Madame de Tourvel, but Fairuza Balk shines as the innocent Cecille. Bening is... lovely as Merteuil, taking a completely different reading of it than Close, she is much more playful and exuberant, but somehow ending up quite lesser than her.

The dialogue is a lot less snappy, memorable and articulate than Christopher Hampton's dialogue; it doesn't shine or seem particularly memorable. The score is quite pallid, the cinematography pretty but bog-standard and the costumes quite fine. Ultimately, it's just not as good of an adaptation. It has less ambition and less focus than Dangerous Liaisons.

However, Valmont isn't by any means a bad film. It's merely a competently made one. Milos Forman, a skilled director, is working from some prime source material here and there's a lot of depth to be milked from it. Two lead performances shine, even though the characters of Merteuil and Valmont as almost assigned to second-tier players, but Balk gives the best performance here; she straddles the borderline between girl and woman like a professional would.

The one hurdle it fails to cross throughout the entirety of it's length is that it fails to invest these character's plights with any kind of importance or gravitas. The film isn't as brutal as it needs to be, and this is where it fails.

This is not a bad film, it is a competently made costume drama. But, for your own good, see Dangerous Liaisons instead. It makes so much more out of the rich source material. B

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