Director: Stephen Frears
Director: Milos Forman
Released less than one year apart, these two movies were based on the same source, the French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, published in 1782. Dangerous Liaisons was adapted from the stage play by Christoper Hampton produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1985. Hampton is a prolific British playwright, translator of plays by Chekhov, Ibsen, and Molière among others, and screenwriter who won an Oscar for his adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons. Valmont was adapted by Jean-Claude Carrière, a multiple award-nominee and winner whose credentials are also impressive. He has done screen adaptations of works by esteemed writers like Flaubert, Proust, Milan Kundera, and Günter Grass. As well as Milos Forman, he has worked with such noted directors as Jean-Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Andrzej Wajda, and in the 1960s and 1970s on no less than six films of Luis Buñuel.
When these two versions of the same novel were released, Dangerous Liaisons got a great deal more attention—better reviews, more award nominations (seven Oscar nominations and three wins to one nomination for Valmont), and considerably better business. Dangerous Liaisons cost about $14 million to make and had a domestic gross of more than $35 million, while Valmont's budget was $33 million with a domestic gross of only a little more than $1 million. Yet Valmont has its admirers. David Thomson states flatly that "Valmont is the better film." So after I saw Valmont recently for the first time, I decided to go back and rewatch Dangerous Liaisons, which I hadn't seen since its release and which I recalled as being outstanding. My conclusion, based on watching the two movies about one week apart: I'll go along with the majority view and say that Dangerous Liaisons is clearly the better of the two.
Glenn Close, John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons
Both movies contain the same basic plot elements. In late 18-century Paris two aristocrats, the widowed Marquise de Verteuil and the Don Juan-like Vicomte de Valmont, wager on the seduction by Valmont of two young women—Cécile, the virginal teenaged daughter, just out of a convent school, of a close friend of the Marquise and Madame de Tourvel, a young married woman whom Valmont has determined to seduce. Valmont's prize if he succeeds: a night with the Marquise. The rest of the movie deals with the machinations of the two in their conspiracy and with the repercussions, both expected and unexpected, of their efforts.
Annette Bening, Colin Firth in Valmont
Yet despite the similarity of plot, the two movies are quite distinct in tone. Forman, who has a tendency to trivialize his plots and characters, does just that in Valmont. He makes the movie an amusing but superficial comedy of sexual manners and hypocrisy. Frears, on the other hand, takes an altogether darker approach, making his version a trenchant commentary on the sociopolitical climate of prerevolutionary France and a probing examination of the psychology of two warped individuals.
Forman's Marquise (Annette Bening) is motivated by personal revenge: Her lover has suddenly broken off with her after becoming engaged to young Cécile. Whereas the Marquise is perfectly acceptable as a mistress, he insists on a virgin for his wife, and the humiliated Marquise is determined to use Valmont to play a dirty trick on her former lover. Frears's Marquise (Glenn Close) is a far more complex and dangerous person. For her the wager with Valmont is not about personal revenge but, as she explains to him in a speech with a clear feminist slant, about exercising power in the only way open to her sex, a sort of revenge both on social conventions which leave no other outlet for her ambitions and on the males who create and perpetuate those mores that disenfranchise her sex.
Bening's Marquise is an idle, self-absorbed woman who sees the manipulation of others as an amusing game to ease her boredom, oblivious of the harm she might be causing to her human playthings. Close's icy Marquise is altogether scarier, a malevolent puppeteer who looks upon others not as playthings but as victims, who sees the control of others as a means to effect their psychological devastation and social ruin. Her pastimes are not mere frivolities, but all-out warfare, and the bedroom is her battlefield, where harm done to those caught up in her intrigues is not collateral damage but the main objective.
Similarly, Forman's Valmont (Colin Firth) seems far less malicious than Frears's (John Malkovich). The very casting of these two actors in the role—the essentially likable Firth versus the smarmy, saurian Malkovich—indicates how differently the two directors view this character. Firth's Valmont, like Bening's Marquise, is a narcissistic sensualist driven by the compulsion for self-gratification. Malkovich's Valmont, like Close's Marquise, is obsessed with power and control. For him the fulfillment of his libidinous impulses is less an end in itself than the felicitous by-product of the need to dominate others.
At one point in each film Valmont concocts a charade to win the sympathies of Mme de Tourvel, who has become aware of his scandalous reputation as a serial seducer. The way this is presented in each film makes a good comparison of the very different ambiances the two directors are aiming for. In Valmont the scene takes place when the Vicomte is out rowing on a lake. He leaves his manservant on the shore and rows to the opposite bank, where Mme de Tourvel (Meg Tilly) is sitting. Telling her he cannot swim, he threatens to drown himself if she will not have him. When she calls his bluff, he throws himself into the water and stays under for an alarming amount of time. Just when she is about to panic and call for help, he pops to the surface and confesses his deception. In the meantime the servant has jumped into the lake to save him and begins to flounder, and Valmont, now standing up in what is clearly about three feet of water, ends up rescuing the servant. It's an amusing sequence, but fairly predictable and not far removed from the farcical sort of scheme Bertie Wooster might have devised to get the attention of an attractive girl in a story by P. G. Wodehouse.
In Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont does something very different. He stages a theatrical scene intended to improve his image to Mme de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Knowing that the footman she has sent to spy on him will be nearby to witness the scene, he contrives to be out walking with his servant when they pass the hovel of peasants being evicted for being unable to pay their taxes. Offering to pay the taxes, he saves them from eviction and succeeds in convincing Mme de Tourvel of his humanity and charity. The entire scene is a cynical fabrication intended to deceive, while the equivalent sequence in Valmont is a fairly transparent ruse intended—and played—more to amuse than to mislead.
And because class conflict exacerbated by excessive taxation to support the extravagant lives of the nobility and to pay off the huge debts of the Seven Years' War was one of the main causes of the French Revolution, Frears and Hampton give the episode a caustic historical-political undertone. (Earlier the Marquise remarks to Valmont that the "century is drawing to a close." The French Revolution occurred in 1789, seven years after Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published.) They even manage to make an implicit criticism of the ethos of greed, arrant materialism, and the widening gulf between rich and poor of the Reagan-Thatcher era, at the height of which the movie was made. Touches like this give Dangerous Liaisons real bite in comparison to Valmont.
Dangerous Liaisons bests Valmont in other ways too. The dialogue is snappier and more witty, peppered with irony and double-entendre. The pacing of the movie is brisker, using ellipsis and narrative jumps to avoid the lulls and sometimes laborious elaboration of action in Valmont, with its more leisurely rhythms and nearly 40 minutes' longer runtime. Frears's film is also better structured and edited than Forman's. For a large portion of the first half of Valmont, Firth disappears completely while Forman concentrates on Bening, something Frears avoids by cross-cutting more frequently among the various plot strains. But probably the biggest advantage Dangerous Liaisons has over Valmont is its cast. It's true that the more forceful conception of the characters by Hampton is in large part responsible for this. Close, Malkovich, and Pfeiffer are simply given more to work with, but even so they make much stronger impressions than do their counterparts in Valmont. Glenn Close in particular dominates the movie with her predatory Marquise de Verteuil and received an Oscar nomination for best actress (with Pfeiffer receiving a nomination for best supporting actress).