Possibly the only known example of a European
version of a film which is not as good as its American counterpart, Valmont
is rather what I would have expected Hollywood
, rather than Milos Forman
, to make of the the original epistolary novel
By no means a bad film, this is first a foremost a feast for the eyes. The art direction, costume design, lighting and general presentation put this film a cut above many other costume dramas. Nevertheless, the authenticity of the production suffers in the name of beauty: the silks are rather too shiny and there is rather too much of them, there is a somehwat disproportionate relation between gilt and crystal (in favour if the more modern looking crystal), and most importantly no one is made to look silly by wearing a wig.
Forman gets his usual quality of performance out of his actors. Annette Bening positively sparkles; whether she was cast to reflect the sparkling nature of the production, or the production designed to complement her, I do not know, but this beautiful and lively actress has never been more prepossessing. Colin Firth manages a good mix of levity and dignity, Fairuza Balk is actually the most true to form Cecile I've ever seen, and Siân Phillips is superb as usual. The one weak point in the cast is Meg Tilly, who manages to convey neither passion, conflict or contrition. One cannot sympathise with such a docile adultress.
On a more essential level, and going back to the novel the movie is based on, there is a fundamental difference in tone between the two. Peeling back the layers of malice, duplicity, hatred, crushing social pressure, maniacal conceit and naked raging passions from the plot leaves it a rather empty, bland sexual intrigue without a driving moral force. Some might say that a morality play of this kind has no relevance to a modern audience, and this is obviously what Forman thought. But the moral nature of the novel cannot be amputated from the narrative without much loss of blood - a happy metaphore, for blood and guts is exactly what the movie lacks. The inevitability of the main characters' downfall is what lends the novel its dynamic tension, and the lack of a perceptible moral punishment is what gives this movie its anticlimactic end.
Not callous enough to rewrite the book completely and let everyone live happily ever after, Forman kills off Valmont himself by way of a nod and a wink to morality. With the other hand, though, he gives back to the audience the delcious knowledge of Valmont's child growing in the newlywed Cecile's womb. Mme. de Tourvel lives to be reconciled to her husband, and the only one left behind to suffer for her crimes is the Marquise de Merteuil. This is altogether too modern an interpretation, however, based on the mores and ideals of the 20th century, in which each is to their own and looking out for number one. The death of Valmont is not the moral climax of this story, neither is his impregnation of Cecile a triumph for his perceived vanity. Most offensive of all, though, is of course the continued prosperity of Mme. de Tourvel, because that woman is the pivot around which the morality of the novel revolves.
Valmont dies not because of flippancy or shame on his part, and not because he has lost his bet. By destroying Mme. de Tourvel, subtly, slowly, deliberately, he sacrifices her to his own vanity and his fear of being seen as being other than what he think he is - callous, charming, unscrupolous. In the process of destroying her, however, he is made to see himself as he is in her eyes, and the comparison between the two images is what drives him to sacrifice himself to Chevalier Danceny's naive rage. For having once seen the real goodness of a moral and loving person, in which he hitherto didn't allow himself to believe, he cannot reconcile himself to his image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Unable to live with his old self, but unwilling to sacrifice his conceit in it, he must destroy both reflections - therefore he and his lover must die.
The loss to the Marquise de Merteuil is not the simple loss of a lover. She loses her balance, her crutch, her only possible support in the private world she has created for herself in the midst of society's suffocating conformity. The Marquise is not a political, but a social intruigante - far from persuing her plots and machinations in solitude, they lose their value if there is no one to share in them and be an appreciative audience. In that she is narcissitic, craving approbation for her successful undermining of prevaling morality as a replacement for the approbation she migh have had had she behaved in an unrebellious a fashion as the pre-Valmont Mme. de Tourvel. She cannot exist without him propping her up, and is therefore destroyed. In the book, she is visited not only by grief but by a loss of her reputation and eventually her beauty, and is forced to live in seclusion.
Cecile's pregnancy is far from being a sly postumous victory for Valmont. It is a testament of the utter failure of her mother to preserve the established order in her own world - the world of chaste marriages and child bride innocence. The fact that Cecile enters her marriage minus this innocence is a breakdown of this world order, a breakdown of morality and a perpetuation of the cycle of women rebelling against the limitations and imperatives placed upon them by society. Cecile is on her way to becoming another Marquise de Merteuil.
Without the complexity of this ethical labirynth, the characters and events in the movie appear flat, and it is not suprising that it was never a commercial success. For those who have read the book it is obviously insufficient. For those who haven't, it doesn't have enough momentum in itself to compel them.