*This review contains major spoilers of both the book and movie.*
Even though I wouldn’t call it a great book, it’s no mystery why the eighteenth-century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (Dangerous Liasions) remains popular. It’s a prurient tale of seduction and intrigue–but since it ends unhappily, the reader can convince himself that he read it for didactic purposes (either to see the promiscuous punished, as its eighteenth-century readers doubtless wanted, or to see the French aristocrats punished, as contemporary readers probably want). Best of all, its film adaptions allow directors to dress their actors in period costumes of corsets and breeches, which transform even the most trifling of films into Serious Oscar Bait. (A few film adaptions–most egregiously, Cruel Intentions–set the story in modern times, but the story resists successful modernization because it hinges on the assumption that seducing a virgin is really bad and will ruin her life, which nobody believes nowadays).
The novel is so popular that in the 1980s, not one but two film adaptations were released–Dangerous Liasions (1988), directed by Stephen Frears, and Valmont (1989), directed by Milos Forman. Dangerous Liasions was the one that successfully sold itself as Serious Oscar Bait, while Valmont languished under mediocre reviews and less-impressive box office earnings.
There are a few reasons why Valmont may have garnered less attention than Dangerous Liasions. It has its flaws–for instance, both Valmont’s love for Madame de Tourvel, and the nature of his relationship with Madame de Merteuil, remain ambiguous, thus leaving many of his actions unexplained. (In Dangerous Liasions, he accepts a duel because he has lost the love of his life, Madame de Tourvel, and therefore has no reason to live. In Valmont, the viewer is given little reason for why Valmont courts death in a senseless duel, since his love for Madame de Tourvel is never openly stated).
Despite its faults, I think Valmont has been unfairly overlooked. Its cast is superior to that of Dangerous Liasions. Colin Firth and Annette Benning, playing Valmont and Madame de Merteuil, are pleasantly seductive, unlike the grim and less attractive John Malkovich and Glenn Close. Cecile and Danceny are convincing as naive youths. The locations and soundtrack are also superb.
The ending is where Valmont truly exceeds Dangerous Liasions. Where Dangerous Liasions is merely a faithful adaptation of a melodrama, Valmont carries the novel’s themes to a higher level of sophistication by altering its events. Dangerous Liasions (both the book and the movie) ends with each character publicly punished for his misdeeds: Valmont dies; Madame de Tourvel dies; Cecile’s pregnancy causes her fiance to reject her; Madame de Merteuil’s evil ways are unmasked. In Valmont, however, the punishments are mostly internal (except for Valmont’s, who still dies). Cecile marries a fiance she doesn’t love, with the intention of cuckolding him with many men. Danceny, once sincerely in love with Cecile, now indifferently cavorts with other women. Madame de Tourvel reconciles with a husband she no longer loves. Madame de Merteuil has succeeded in her revenge, but her life still lacks genuine love or fulfillment. Instead of punishing its characters through deus ex machina devices such as disease, the movie shows how their corruption coarsens them, leaving them jaded and bored. Perhaps, then, Valmont was less popular because it showed the consequences of promiscuity to be more horrifying–and believable–than did Dangerous Liasions.