In 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses was published in France to immediate public success. The novel scandalised contemporary readers with its unflinching insight into the ‘immorality’ of it’s two main characters, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. I read this novel last summer and thought it was a beautifully constructed piece of writing which offers an intriugingly unjudgemental (particularly for the time it was written!) insight into the complexities of human morality. I had been aware of the John Malkovich/Glenn Close adaptation for a while, but not the Colin Firth adaptation which was actually released a year later. A period film with Colin Firth as the leading man, that I hadn’t yet seen? A must-watch indeed…!
Valmont, released in 1989, stars Firth alongside Annette Benning as Merteuil and Meg Tilly as Madame de Tourvel, the morally pure married woman, who Valmont views as a tantilising challenge and sets about trying to seduce. The chemistry between Tilly and Firth is great, and really captures the development of their relationship as Valmont begins to realise he is not emotionally invulnerable. The acting is beautiful and totally believable, and I think this is the real challenge for any adaptation of this novel, as the characters of both Valmont and Madame de Tourvel develop so subtly and it is important not to demonise Valmont, or make him wholly sympathetic. (Incidentally I think the modernised adaptation, Cruel Intentions, with Reese Witherspoon and Ryan Phillipe in these roles also does a great job with the characters.)
How does it compare with the John Malkovich version then, released in 1988? I have to say, I actually like it better. Dangerous Liaisons is a good film, and the casting is great, but I just think the Firth version captures more of the subtlety and poignancy of the story. Malkovich is great as Valmont however, (he has that king of sinister charisma about him which is perfect for the role) and Glen Close as Merteuil is a brilliant counter-weight of unrepenting immorality. Both films however are fantastic in their own right – beautifully produced period dramas which evoke perfectly the life of French aristocracy in the 18th Century.
The purpose of the post then is to draw attention to this wonderful Firth film, which seemed to have slipped under my radar thus far. Lovers of Laclos’ novel and Firth fans alike are sure to enjoy this film (it even includes a wet-shirted-Colin-coming-out-of-a-lake scene which is always a plus!) Maybe after his recent Oscar win (YAY!), more people will start to dig out some of his old films, and I highly recommend Valmont for something a bit different from his usual roles.