Dangerous Liaisons: Fun and Games in Ancien Régime France

LUST. SEDUCTION. REVENGE. THE GAME AS YOU’VE NEVER SEEN IT PLAYED BEFORE. 

In 1782, four volumes of the epistolary novel ”Les Liaisons Dangereuses” were published in France. Written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, the novel depicts scandalous sexual intrigues among aristocrats and has been seen as a politically dangerous morality tale of the behavior of the Ancien Régime before the French Revolution. However, there’s no real evidence of that; it’s been said that even Marie Antoinette enjoyed the book, so how bad could it have been in the 1780s? The novel is probably best seen as an illustration of libertinism as represented by Glenn Close and John Malkovich’s wickedly lustful aristocrats.

Eight years before the French Revolution, the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Close) is out for revenge against a former lover who ended their relationship. She contacts a man she knows will help her – the equally unconventional and scheming Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich). It turns out that they both have intricate plans. The Marquise wants Valmont to seduce a young virgin, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman); fresh out of a convent, the girl is set to marry the man who turned his back on the Marquise. Valmont agrees that her seduction would be a fitting act of revenge, but he’s more interested in a greater challenge – seducing Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), the God-fearing wife of a member of parliament. The Marquise does not believe it can be done, but agrees to the following: if Valmont does bed Madame de Tourvel, she must herself give in to his sexual advances.

Never feels stage-bound
Stephen Frears had directed great movies before, but Dangerous Liaisons became his first real Hollywood success, with several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. His and Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of the latter’s own play never feels stage-bound, but deftly takes advantage of cinematic possibilities. The cast and crew went to France and found themselves a lovely selection of chateaus to shoot the film – Philippe Rousselot’s camera moves gently around the surroundings and makes sure to capture all the enchanting details of the Oscar-winning production and costume design, as in the opening scenes where the Marquise and Valmont are being dressed and prepared by their servants (brilliantly bookended by the film’s final, revealing shot). The filmmakers maintain an intimate atmosphere for the intrigues to play out; the dialogue is often laced with acid and it’s a privilege for us in the audience to watch the games. They are initially performed with a slight wink toward the camera, but the intrigues turn darker after a while as love begins to have an effect on even the blackest of souls. This is a formidable cast; critics were divided over Malkovich, but he successfully blends charm with a sense of malice, a true predatory nature whose seduction of two pure-hearted women is a brutal exercise. Watching his scenes with the deliciously playful Close is a treat. But Thurman and Pfeiffer also deserve recognition for their work; playing two innocent women who have been shielded from the real world and not make them look like caricatures is not easy. The film’s elegance is enhanced by George Fenton’s music score, which blends seamlessly with many classical pieces by composers like Vivaldi, Bach and Gluck.

You can certainly view this film as critique of a society that has lost its way, soon to unravel. But the film’s focus lies on the characters and their intense passions, and their attempts to either manipulate or fight them. Considering how puritan our world seems even now sometimes, Dangerous Liaisons is still a fresh, naughty snack.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988-U.S. 120 min. Color. Produced by Norma Heyman, Hank Moonjean. Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Play: Christopher Hampton. Novel: Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. Cinematography: Philippe Rousselot. Music: George Fenton. Production Design: Stuart Craig. Costume Design: James Acheson. Cast: Glenn Close (Isabelle de Merteuil), John Malkovich (de Valmont), Michelle Pfeiffer (Marie de Tourvel), Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick… Uma Thurman, Peter Capaldi.

Trivia: Drew Barrymore, Sarah Jessica Parker and Annette Bening were considered for roles. The story was also filmed as Dangerous Liaisons 1960 (1959), Une Femme Fidèle (1976), Valmont (1989), Cruel Intentions (1999), Untold Scandal (2003) and Dangerous Liaisons (2012).

Oscars: Best Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Supporting Actress (Pfeiffer), Adapted Screenplay.

Quote: “I’ve succeeded because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” (Close)

Last word: “[Frears and I] could be very argumentative with each other, but everything that’s good about the film I would credit to him. I’ve certainly never been challenged like that before. I didn’t always like it – I mean, in all the ways that people don’t like a challenge. It upsets their equilibrium. It throws them off their game plan. It makes them view something in a way they had not viewed it before. And that’s what Stephen does wonderfully. He did drive me crazy a lot. But so what?” (Malkovich, Critics at Large)

 

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