Clearly overawed by the runaway success of the rival Dangerous Liaisons, the distributors of Valmont have kept us waiting almost three years before releasing their version of the Laclos novel, thus cheating us of the pleasures of immediate comparison. Making no secret of the fact that he has "freely adapted" the novel, writer Jean-Claude Carriere and Milos "Amadeus" Forman have come up with a visually mouthwatering epic treatment: beautiful, opulent, sumptuous. But is it any good? Well, yes. If readers of the novel and/or fans of the Christopher Hampton/Stephen Frears/Glenn Close/John Malkovich version have no objection to the sting being drawn from the piece and can handle a merry romp, there is much to enjoy.
The bare bones are intact: a spurned Madame de Merteuil (Bening, alarmingly modern) persuades the sexually expert and amoral Vicomte de Valmont (Firth, disconcertingly like a good-natured product of an English public school) to deflower the teenaged convent innocent Cecile (Balk, excellent) who, in turn, is in love with her young music master (Henry Thomas - remember E.T.?) to the horror of her mother (Sian Phillips).
During a lazy summer at the estate of his aunt (a wonderfully dotty performance from the late Fabia Drake) Valmont obliges, to the evident delight of his victim while, at the same time, relentlessly pursuing the morally pure Madame de Tourvel (Tilly, quite brilliant).
The tale is told with great style and evident relish, takes far too long and makes no moral point. Herein lies its major failure. Aside from the genuine grief of Tilly, whose wonderful reading of her role places her in a different film, none of the characters evoke either revulsion or pity. There is no sense that Merteuil is trapped by her intelligence, and Valmont's death is an almost casual event. The anachronistic brio which distinguishes Forman's style is in pleasurable evidence, the approach to the subject is very much his own, and it's worth seeing if you forget all about the original.