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In 18th century France, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont play a dangerous game of seduction. Valmont is someone who measures success by the number of his conquests and Merteuil challenges him to seduce the soon to be married Cecile de Volanges and provide proof in writing of his success. His reward for doing so will be to spend the night with Merteuil. He has little difficulty seducing Cecile but what he really wants is to seduce Madame de Tourvel. When Merteuil learns that he has actually fallen in love with her, she refuses to let him claim his reward for seducing Cecile. Death soon follows. Written by
In Madame de Rosemonde's garden, Valmont sits behind Madame de Tourvel and asks "Why are you so angry with me?" The camera then cuts to a close-up of Tourvel's face, and Valmont is sitting much closer behind her. See more »
Sexual decadence before the fall of the guillotine
(Note: Over 500 of my movie reviews are now available in my book "Cut to the Chaise Lounge or I Can't Believe I Swallowed the Remote!" Get it at Amazon.)
This is a tale about the ancien régime in 18th century France before the revolution in which the moral decadence of the privileged classes rivaled that of Sodom and Gomorrah and the ancient Romans. The story comes from a novel by Choderlos de Laclos that was made into a stage play by Christopher Hampton. It is a cynical satire on human sexuality as well as a very subtle examination of sexual hypocrisy and desire, a kind of oh so sophisticated laugh at bourgeois morality that would have delighted Voltaire and Moliere and greatly amused Shakespeare. It is a tale of elaborate lechery and revenge that backfires because it seems that anybody, even the most jagged rake can fall in love, and thereby become the victim.
John Malkovich plays the rake, Vicomte de Valmont, whose sole purpose in life is to seduce women, rob them of their virtue and then move on. Glenn Close plays his back-stabbing confidante and one-time lover, the Marquise de Merteuil. Michelle Pfeiffer plays the coy and virtuous Madame de Tourvel, who is to be Valmont's latest conquest. Uma Thurman is cast as a teenaged ingenue who is betrothed to Merteuil's lover while Keanu Reeves plays her naive music teacher and would be lover, Chevalier Danceny. Stephen Frears, who has directed such diverse films as The Grifters (1990) and My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), after a somewhat cryptic start, does an excellent job of bringing the biting cynicism of Laclos and Hampton to the screen.
I know of two other versions of this film, Milos Forman's Valmont (1989), starring Colin Firth and Annette Bening, and Roger Vadim's Dangerous Liaisons (1960). Regrettably , I haven't seen Vadim's film, but Forman's Valmont is excellent. In polite society comparisons are said to be odious. I shall proceed anyway:
John Malkovich vs. Colin Firth. Malkovich is widely recognized as a great actor, but he is clearly miscast in this role, yet he brings a predatory dimension to the part that is in keeping with the overall psychology of the movie. Firth, while not as celebrated for his acting skills as Malkovich, is nonetheless a fine actor, and his charm and playful inventiveness are more in keeping with the character of Valmont, whom women love. Call it even.
Glenn Close vs. Annette Bening. Again Close is considered the more accomplished actor, but Bening is sexier, prettier and considerably more charming. Whether that is a plus as far as the reality of the novel and play are concerned is debatable. For my part I found Bening a lot more fun to watch. Edge to Bening.
Michelle Pfeiffer vs. Meg Tilly. Pfeiffer is a much bigger star and has more experience as an actress. She is beautiful, but Tilly is more passionate. Pfeiffer was nominated for an academy award for best supporting actress for her work, but did not win. Personally I thought Tilly was more believable and was especially effective in projecting first the repressed passion and then the complete abandonment as she gives herself to Valmont. Pfeiffer's portrayal of Tourvel's coy awakening, with just a hint of duplicity, and then her utter dissolution when he leaves her, was star quality. Edge to Pfeiffer.
Uma Thurman vs. Fairuza Balk. I loved them both. Thurman, of course, is a more statuesque beauty with a polished and controlled acting style, but Balk's wide-eyed innocence was a delight. Call it even.
Keanu Reeves vs. Henry Thomas. Thomas was cute, but almost too juvenile to be believed. Reeves seemed just right for the part. Clear edge to Reeves.
Frears vs. Forman. Frears's direction was more cynical, especially in the duel between Valmont and Merteuil in which their mutual and complementary debauchery is in sharp focus. And his resolution was more clearly defined. Forman's strength was in the delight and playfulness of many of the scenes, especially those relating to the seduction of Tourvel. His direction was more comedic and he allowed a greater development of secondary characters, while Frears concentrated more on the two leads. I give a very small edge to Forman, but would not argue with those preferring Frears.
Bottom line: I liked Forman's movie better, but the voters at IMDb.com preferred Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, giving it an average of 7.7 stars out of ten to 6.7 for Valmont.
Some bon mots:
Valmont tells Madame de Tourvel as he dumps her, "My love had great difficulty outlasting your virtue. It's beyond my control."
Valmont demands that the Marquise de Merteuil reply to his proposal of a night together, will it be love of war? He says, "A single word is all that is required." Long pause, and then she gives him three, "All right. (Pause.
Cut to satisfied smile on Valmont's face.) War."
When Valmont returns from making love to Madame de Tourvel he reveals to Merteuil that for the first time he may be in love. He relates his feelings to her, "I love her. I hate her..." The camera turns to Close, who yawns.
Valmont's aunt while consoling Madame de Tourvel, who has confessed that she is in love with Valmont and can't help herself, says, reflecting the wisdom of all who have been there, "In such matters all advice is useless."
Toward the end, Valmont says, "I have no illusions. I lost them on my travels."
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