For its first half or so, director Milos Forman and screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere’s free adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les liasons dangereuses holds a great deal of promise. Beautifully mounted and attractively shot in ‘Scope (by Miroslav Ondricek), seductively acted (especially by Colin Firth as Valmont and Annette Bening as Merteuil), and crisply and economically edited, the film dives straight into the novel’s central intrigue without any preliminaries, and holds one’s interest with sheer storytelling flair before one has any opportunity to wonder what this story (in contrast to the novel) is actually about. Unfortunately, it gradually emerges that Forman and Carriere are pretty much in the dark themselves about what their story means. Neither a reductive simplification of the original (like Carriere’s versions of Proust in Swann in Love and Kundera in The Unbearable Lightness of Being) nor a reductive subversion (like Forman’s adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and not even a combination of the two (like Forman’s Ragtime), the film winds up subtracting meaning from the original without really adding any strong independent meaning of its own. All the major characters (with the possible exception of the simple-hearted Danceny) are reduced to ciphers, either through a withdrawal of their original motivations (Merteuil and Tourvel) or a softening of their natures (in the case of Valmont), so that what emerges by the end is genuinely bafflingand not very interesting as an enigma either. The results are too pretty and well acted to be a total washout, but the fascination with evil and power that gives the novel intensity is virtually absent; what remains is mainly petty malice and mild cynicism. With Meg Tilly, Fairuza Balk, Sian Phillips, Jeffrey Jones, and Henry Thomas (1989). (JR)

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