(23/05/07) – I remember when Valmont was released in 1989. The movie-going world was busy enjoying Dangerous Liaisons, Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears’ adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, so why did we need another version? And as easily as that, Valmont, based on the same novel yet with a less starry cast, pretty much sunk without trace. Eighteen years later, I’ve finally seen Valmont – courtesy of Metrodome Distribution’s recent Region 2 DVD release. What a film! As good as Dangerous Liaisons if not better. I wish I’d seen it in the cinema, although this new DVD offers a very clear and rich transfer of image and sound.

What screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere and director Milos Forman have achieved with this film which Dangerous Liaisons lacked somewhat is a real sense of the far-reaching tragic ramifications of playing with hearts in the name of fun. As all the Dangerous Liaisons fans know, the story is set in 18th-century France. The Marquise de Merteuil (Annette Bening) wants to get back at her ex-lover, Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones), who is engaged to be married to a virginal young woman, Cecile (Fairuza Balk). So Merteuil enlists the help of her friend, seasoned user-and-abuser the Vicomte De Valmont (Colin Firth) to seduce Cecile before the wedding. But Valmont, much to his own surprise, gets diverted by falling in love for real, not with Cecile but with Madame de Tourvel (Meg Tilly), a tender soul married to a distant businessman. Valmont’s feelings are set to disrupt the aristocratic status quo and enrage the Marquise, with tragic consequences…

This film followed Milos Forman’s critical and commercial triumph with Amadeus, and shows again how well he combines classical narrative filmmaking with vivid, idiosyncratic characterisation and astute social comment. The sexual power games of the idle rich are played out in louche fashion amid beautiful sets by Pierre Guffroy and lit in a palette of whites, greys and greens by ace cinematographer Miroslaw Ondricek. However, the story’s meaning is not smothered by all that beauty. The performances are very good – so good, in fact, that the warring, contemporaneous accents never jar the way they did in Dangerous Liaisons. Annette Bening was not too far into her movie career at this point, but she nails Merteuil’s over-confidence and self-denial. Fairuza Balk, as Cecile, is suitably innocent but ready to be seduced by Valmont and learn the fine art of hiding men in her closet.

Most impressive of all is Meg Tilly, who has managed to do with the Madame de Tourvel role exactly what Michelle Pfeiffer achieved in Dangerous Liaisons: take what is perhaps the role with the narrowest dramatic range and make it the most heartfelt and memorable in the film. Madame de Tourvel is unprepared for the shock of falling in love, and gives herself boldly to the experience, knowing that she has fallen for a man who has a proven tack record is breaking women’s hearts. She gets her heart broken again, and Tilly really projects the tender arc of a truly virtuous woman in a snake pit. She should have been a slam-dunk for Best Supporting Actress but the Academy failed to nominate her. (One year after Dangerous Liaisons had picked up three Oscars, Valmont received just one nomination: Best Costume Design.

But this film is not called Valmont for nothing, and Firth is very charming and very open – and reminds us that, years before his fame playing grimly solid, salt-of-the-earth lovers like Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice and Renee Zellweger’s suitor in Bridget Jones’ Diary, he could be naughty, scathing, sly and hungry – he has the qualities we’ve also seen repeatedly in Ewan McGregor and Jude Law. Valmont should by rights have made Firth a star; that it didn’t is one of those unhappy accidents that leave the initiated scratching their heads.

The DVD edition of Valmont is now. Please follow links provided to buy a copy and support Kamera by doing so.