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Valmont

The second take on Choderlos de Laclos' 18th century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses to hit the big screen in less than a year, Milos Forman's 1989 Valmont crawled slowly and silently over the finish line, lost in the fanfare accorded to Stephen Frears' celebrated 1988 Dangerous Liaisons. In Forman's version, Colin Firth stars as the eponymous character, a free-loving rogue whose very presence is enough to tarnish a respected woman's reputation. Intrigued by women who resist him, Valmont becomes obsessed with obtaining the physical affections of a devout and faithful wife (Meg Tilly), whose husband is away on business. Meanwhile, an old lover, Mme. Merteuil (Annette Bening), tries to enlist Valmont in the jealous task of despoiling the naive and virginal fiancé (Fairuza Balk) of her distracted lover (Jeffrey Jones), but the games and wagers with which Valmont and Merteuil amuse themselves and each other eventually corrupt their teasing relationship into a vindictive battle of wills. Where Frears' version was intimate and melodramatic (it was adapted by proxy from Christopher Hampton's play of de Laclos' novel), Forman's is reserved and epic, more costume pageant than chamber drama. Valmont's advantage over its predecessor is its interpretation: Valmont and Merteuil are not as vicious in their deeds, acting out of spite, immaturity, and libertine pettiness instead of crafting Machiavellian schemes of psycho-sexual destruction. While Frears' film is more obvious and prone to scenery-chewing bluster, it is also, as a result, more memorable. Firth is excellent as the shortsightedly randy Valmont, and Balk's performance as pawn Celeste is a perfect combination of bewilderment, fear and innocence. Elsewhere, however, Valmont's casting is almost catastrophic. Tilly is wholly miscast as Valmont's prey, failing to settle into her period surroundings and so weak of presence that Valmont's triumph in winning her love is a foregone conclusion (in Frears' version, the best performance comes from Michelle Pfeiffer in this same role; Tilly, while less annoying than her sister Jennifer, is no Michelle Pfeiffer. For that matter, neither is she Dedee Pfeiffer. Or Jules Pfeiffer.). Bening, too, is ludicrously poor, taking the most prosaic of approaches in every scene and miserably overacting in the least effective ways. And E.T.'s pallid and wooden Henry Thomas as a young heartthrob? Please. Still, Valmont is a sumptuous production and Firth and Balk salvage most of a film that sadly mishandles too many key scenes and performances. The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer on MGM's new release is solid, as is the Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Trailer, keep-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr



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