Synopsis: The game of conquest is underway. Anything goes when a predatory, wealthy widow (Glenn Close) challenges a notorious rake (John Malkovich) to seduce a beautiful young newlywed (Michelle Pfeifer). But this time, a cardinal rule will be broken: two players will fall in love-with tragic results. This acclaimed winner of three Academy Awards boasts grand 18th-century sets and costumes, brought to life in this gorgeous release. Directed by Stephen Frears from a scandalous 1782 novel and Christopher Hampton’s compelling play, Dangerous Liaisons is “nasty, decadent fun; the surprise is how much anguished emotion seeps through its cool marble heart” (David Ansen, Newsweek). Let the games begin!
Dangerous Liaisons 9.25
eyelights: John Malkovich. Glenn Close. Michelle Pfeiffer. the devilish plot. the delicious dialogues. the sumptuous locations. the gorgeous music.
eyesores: Keanu Reeves’s insipid delivery. Uma Thurman’s uneven performance.
“It’s beyond my control.”
‘Dangerous Liaisons’ is a 1988 motion picture based on a classic 18th century French novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses”, by Choderlos de Laclos. It recounts the manipulations of two ruthless aristocratic former lovers who derive pleasure out of goading each other into making various romantic and sexual conquests – to exact revenge on people who have slighted them or simply for the sake of the challenge.
I first saw this picture at a friend’s place back in the late ’80s, no doubt soon after its release on home video. The girl obviously had great taste: she also introduced me to ‘The Name of the Rose‘ and to Depeche Mode’s ‘101‘. The impact of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ was such that it was immediately propelled into my list of all-time favourite motion pictures, and has remained there ever since (In fact, it might even be in my top 5 at this point).
For starters, it’s a near-perfect film: from the storytelling, to the principal cast, the dialogues, the settings, the costumes, all the way down to the music, the whole production is splendid. But it’s more than that: I was immediately taken with the repartee, the duels of wills between the leads, their devilish machinations, and how much they relished destroying others’ reputations for their own enjoyment. I had never seen anything quite like it before.
Or since. Although ‘The Last Seduction‘ comes close. (And don’t even get me started on the horrendous ‘Cruel Intentions’, which is also based on ‘Les Liaisons dangereuses’, but which is hobbled by a crappy script and the worst cast ever. Or ‘Valmont‘, a competing production to ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, but which managed to be extremely dull, antiseptic).
It’s not that I appreciate or condone such immoral behaviour (in fact, my values are such that I couldn’t lie or manipulate even if I wanted to), it’s just that I’m utterly impressed with the way in which they played the game, how every move was calculated, and how successful they were at it. It’s like watching a great chess match with two Grand Masters facing off; whether you like the game itself or not, the skill is something to behold.
Naturally, it helps that the cast is entirely up to the task:
- John Malkovich is an interesting choice as the embodiment of Valmont: he’s not an especially handsome man, and thus one would hardly imagine him as a seducer extraordinaire. And yet, that’s partly why it works: one gets the impression that Valmont’s had to rely on his wits precisely for this reason, to overcome his physique. And this may also inform his ruthlessness: he may very well be embittered and relishing his conquests as proof of his superiority.
Valmont is youthful, arrogant and devilish; his every word and gesture is calculated. And he is slightly enigmatic, something that Frears deliberately nurtured: the film starts with dramatic music and first our introduction to Valmont and de Merteuil is watching them get made up and groomed by their servants. We actually don’t see Valmont’s face completely until he’s fully made up, building up an aura of mystery around him. He isn’t so much introduced as unveiled, revealed.
The character grabs your attention every single moment that he’s on screen. I must admit that I’m in total awe of his skills, of his utter devotion to his craft. I could never be so unscrupulous as to attempt any such deceits, but I am nonetheless impressed. In real life, Valmont would find the likes of me weak. Conversely, in real life, I would find him cruel, loathsome; he is exactly the type of person that I would despise knowing. As a fictional character, however…
You have to watch Malkovich’s tour-de-force performance in two ways: how the victims see it, as truth, and from our perspective, as a lie. He’s brilliant at doing both. It was the first time I’d ever seen Malkovich in action and I’ve never seen him better. How he wasn’t acclaimed for his performance is beyond me: just the look of realization on his face when de Merteuil declares war after having strung him along for weeks is an Oscar clip.
One of many.
Another such scene that remains firmly imprinted in my mind when I think of ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ is when Valmont is writing love letters to de Tourvel – naked, in bed with a prostitute, using her back as a writing desk while she giggles. Unbelievable! of course, it’s not just the visual, it’s the gall, the nerve of that bastard, to proclaim his love for her while gleefully mocking her with the help of another woman. He deserves everything that comes to him.
To think that Alan Rickman (who had played the part in the 1987 Broadway version) passed on this role to make ‘Die Hard’ instead. I must admit, he would have been terrific as the Vicomte; he has that edge, that look in his eye. However, had he taken the part, we would have been deprived of two brilliant performances: Malkovich’s as Valmont and Rickman’s own in ‘Die Hard’ – one of the most memorable villains of the 1980s. So it was a good career move on all counts.
- Glenn Close is absolutely brilliant as de Merteuil. In fact, the only reason I don’t mention her first is because Malkovich gets much more screen time and he’s left a stamp all over the movie for me – his performance is what grabbed me right out of the starting gate. But Close is so fine in this part, playing de Merteuil cool, composed and utterly malevolent. It’s the subtlety of her performance that is amazing to watch, the inflections, the looks, her vibe.
de Merteuil is a strong female character, one of the strongest set to screen. In a world dominated by men, she has set out to free herself of their power by manipulating them, carefully learning her craft from a young age, using her mind (and the promise of her body) to make men do her will. She has shed herself of her husband and refuses to be lead by another man; instead she now enraptures lovers for her use. As the perfect female counterpoint to Valmont, it’s no wonder they’re fascinated with each other.
What’s amazing is that she has a reputation as a virtuous and refined woman, one that others look up to – at a time when women’s reputations were so easy to destroy. As incredibly intelligent as she is, de Merteuil managed to maintain these pretenses all the while working her magic behind the scenes to further her various causes. Even though she is offensively self-serving, immoral and unapologetic, she is a phenomenal character, a force to be reckoned with.
It’s hardly surprising to find out, then, that other actresses wanted the part – there are very few powerful ones like that in Hollywood. And so it was that Annette Bening was considered for the part but ended up playing it in ‘Valmont’ instead. As good as she is, she never would have matched Close’s performance. In fact, her rendition pales in comparison with Close and it’s one of many serious weaknesses in the unfathomably bland ‘Valmont’.
- Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madame de Tourvel, Valmont’s key victim. de Tourvel is proper and unshakable in her beliefs, thereby tempting Valmont; he wants to not only break her down, but he wants to get under her skin enough so that she knows she’s doing the wrong thing, but just can’t help herself. Frankly, from a purely psychological level it’s horrifying what he does to her. You can’t help but pity her, because for all her strength she is no match for him.
Pfeiffer is surprisingly effective. I’m no great fan of the actress, but she is superb at making de Tourvel demure, at contrasting her moral fibre and her emotional vulnerability. Appropriately, she doesn’t come on strong in the picture, allowing Malkovich and Close to make the most of their screen time. Interestingly, Pfeiffer was offered the part of de Merteuil in ‘Valmont’, but chose this instead. Thank goodness: while an intriguing idea, it would have been a loss to this picture.
- Swoozy Kurtz plays Madame de Volanges, de Merteuil’s cousin. She despises Valmont because of his reputation as a womanizer. She is prissy, uptight and not entirely bright: her naiveté will allow her to entrust her teenaged daughter to her cousin for tutelage about the ways of the world. Needless to say, that doesn’t turn out quite as expected. Kurtz is excellent in the part: she manages to play that fine line between seriousness and satire. Very nice
- Uma Thurman plays Cécile de Volanges, the daughter. She is even more naive that her mother, having been sheltered her whole life in a convent. As she has been promised to de Merteuil’s former lover, she is also target: de Merteuil enlists Valmont to sully Cécile so that she will be spoiled goods on her wedding night – and she will have had her vengeance. Cécile naturally defends her honour at first but, with a little prodding, she happily indulges in more than a few pleasures.
Thurman has always left me with mixed feelings here: on the one hand, there is a freshness about her and she is absolutely lovely to look at, but, on the other, she’s quite amateurish in many instances. She’s never been a brilliant actress but she was also only getting started then – so she has her moments, but she’s not exactly stellar. To think that Sarah Jessica Parker and Drew Barrymore were considered for the part. I’m not sure that either of them would have been better.
- Keanu Reeves plods through the part of Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, a young music teacher who has been hired to train Cécile. He and she have caught each other’s eye, but de Merteuil soon realizes that he is too shy to make his move. Keanu looks the part, but he can’t deliver a line worth his life. I’ve always pronounced his name “canoe” because he’s the most wooden actor of his generation. He proves it here. How he made it in Hollywood is beyond me. Luck, likely.
Aside from the brilliant principal cast, the delicious repartee and the fantastic period setting (the palaces, carriages, costumes, …etc., are a sight to behold), I really love the fabulous score that was put together by George Fenton: his combination of new compositions and classics by Bach, Hendel, Vivaldi, and others, is as awesome as the film’s sights, and it serves to enhance the picture. I’ve had the CD for something like 15 years and it remains one of my favourite scores.
But what makes this version of “Dangerous Liaisons’ more than just a trenchant period piece are the discussions that the characters have about the time’s social mores, love, the differences between men and women, as well as women’s power, place and roles in that society, what was expected of them, and how easily destroyed their reputations are. It really gave us perspective, informed their behaviour and showed us just how vulnerable women were at the time. And how powerful too.
My only real gripe of the whole movie aside from the casting of Uma and Canoe (no small flaw, I must say) is that there isn’t an especially clear sense of the passage of time; it’s ambiguous, not well demarcated. One gets the sense that the events take place over weeks, if not months. But it’s not entirely clear; it could also be mere days. However, having said this, this minor problem also doesn’t weaken the film, as it’s cleverly disguised by Frears.
Frankly, even after having seen it so many times in my life, I watched ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ fully engrossed; it totally flew by. It’s deeply, darkly comic, a cynic’s delight: the aristocracy, their social mores, the expectations, the psychological games, it’s all so much fun to pick apart and take pleasure in. And although the same story has been adapted many times over, I’ve never seen one that even remotely approached the mastery of Frear’s adaptation.
‘Dangerous Liaisons’ is a must-see, a masterpiece.
Date of viewing: August 23, 2014