23 NOVEMBER 1991, Page 56


Valmont ('15', Lumiere)

Nutcracker sweet

Harriet Waugh

Based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, an epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos set in France around 1782, Valmont tells the story of the Marquise de Merteuil, a beau- tiful, sophisticated widow (Annette Ben- ing) and Valmont, a seducer of Casanova proportions (Colin Firth), and of the peo- ple who come between them. The Mar- quise and Valmont are the nutcrackers and those they take an interest in are the nuts to be cracked.

To begin with all is dancing light. The châteaux in which the characters live are beautiful, the clothes are sumptuous, dis- course is sweet and gentle and embraces warm and affectionate. Into this society comes Cecile (Fairuza Balk), a 15-year-old girl straight out of convent school. A mar- riage has been arranged for her by her mother, Madame de Volanges (Sian Phillips), but the identity of the bride- groom is still a secret even from Cecile. She is befriended by her mother's glam- orous cousin the Marquise, who takes her to the opera. Everything about life is won- derful to Cecile after the simplicities of the convent. She also has the pleasure of a not too serious romance with her harp teacher Danceny (played as though straight out of a teen movie by Jeffrey Jones), that is until the Marquise takes a hand in her affairs.

The utterly charming Marquise has a lover and when she discovers humiliatingly 'He's a bit sensitive about mother-in-law jokes.' that he is Cecile's intended and that he has insisted (an even worse insult) that his bride should be a virgin, she decides on a terrible revenge. In order to accomplish this end she enlists the help of her friend Valmont, an ex-lover. She wishes Cecile to be debauched morally and physically before her marriage. However, her plans nearly come to nothing as Valmont has other fish to fry. He has fallen violently in love with Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly), the beautiful and thoroughly good, faithful wife of a judge, and he has no inclination to think of minor seductions until he has completed that one. The comedy is Mainly played out in the country château of Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont's elderly and benevolent aunt, where most of the characters forgather.

Valmont is the third adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in as many years and it has to be said that it does complicate reaction to it if you have seen the play and the other film which were scripted bY Christopher Hampton. That film, entitled Dangerous Liaisons and starring Glenn Close as the Marquise de Merteuil, human- ises, a little, the moral bleakness of the stage production, but Valmont, Milos For- man's version, goes a long way to destroy- ing the moral bleakness completely. Does this matter?

If you forget its origins Valmont is a pic- turesque, anachronistic romp. You will not find 18th-century deportment here. Cecile races, skidding across marble floors like a modern teenager catching up with her class on a school outing to an historic house. Valmont, absurdly, leaps on a horse and gallops ventre a terre all the way to Paris so as to arrive before the escaping Madame de Tourvel, and while you cannot take your eyes off Annette Bening such is her screen presence, there could hardly be a more American actress. On the other hand, she brings to the part something that Glenn Close, for all the power of her perfor- mance, failed to achieve and that is charm. Despite all her wickedness and scheming the Marquise de Merteuil in Valmont is utterly charming, and it becomes entirelY understandable how she was able to seduce and subvert others to her wishes for so long. Charm is after all essentially amoral Despite the fun Valmont lacks credibilitY, having a swinging, 1970s conception of the 18th century in which everybody hops int° bed with each other with impunity. This was hardly the perception of the original. The ending is so softened that it loses much of the tension and the drama. All the wit and the heady, wordy mastery that Christopher Hampton brought to Danger- ous Liaisons is lost in Jean-Claude Car- riere's script. Milos Forman's film is a mere confection in comparison to Stephen Frears's one, but in the way that confec- tions can give real entertainment Valmont is entertaining. If you have not seen, the other and do not feel like getting a video out you could do worse than go to see this.