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Truly Great Movies: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

October 28, 2010

Vicomte de Valmont: I often wonder how you manage to invent yourself.
Marquise de Merteuil: Well, I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So, of course, I had to invent, not only myself, but ways of escape no one has every thought of before. And I’ve succeeded because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.


It’s funny how the mind works.  For example, the chain of thought leading up to this post…

I heard on E! that Reese Witherspoon might possibly be engaged.  Wasn’t she married to Ryan Phillippe?  Yes.  They met on the set of Cruel Intentions, which is a modern re-make of….Dangerous Liaisons.  What a great movie, Dangerous Liaisons.  So, here we are.  I think the devious characters in the story would appreciate how gossip traveled across the transom of my mind in such a fashion.

Let’s take a closer look at this incredible movie.  As my students would say – “This is going to be EPIC”!

The idle rich plan the downfall of the meek and mild

Dangerous Liaisons is the second Truly Great Movie directed by Stephen Frears that I’ve written about (the first was High Fidelity), and it is the film he is the most closely associated with on many levels.  Dangerous Liasions is itself an adaptation of an adaptation.  The movie is not based on the original epistolary novel by aristocratic insider Chorerlos DeLaclos, but on the smash hit play by Christopher Hampton.   Hampton himself wrote the script for the film.  The orignal London cast included Alan Rickman as Valmont, the wonderful Lindsay Duncan as the Marquise de Merteuil and Juliet Stevenson as Madame de Tourvel.  If I could get in a time machine, I would LOVE to see that cast in action.

For the film version, Frears pulled out all the stops.  He utilized breathtaking period-accurate locations in France, and the costumes by James Acheson are still gorgeous (not to mention still being re-used for various Baroque/Georgian films today).  Dangerous Liaisons would win Academy Awards for its art direction, costumes and adapted screenplay.

What is still memorable, however, are the performances.  In a bold move, Frears cast all Americans in the lead (and a majority of the supporting) roles, jettisoning the idea that all period films must star Brit actors.  It was a gamble that paid off.

Glenn Close is ice-cold fabulous as the master schemer, the Marquise de Merteuil, a bitter and manipulative creature who is constrained by the times she lives in.  Were she alive today, she could conquer the universe.  In 18th century France, however, she must settle for the comfort of being a widow where other women are controlled (financially and emotionally) by their husbands.   She’s learned to wear the mask of contented sincerity, but beneath the calm exterior lies an active mind with the ruthlessness of a demon.   I have no doubt that if Dangerous Liaisons were released this year, Glenn Close would be clutching an Oscar come March.  Alas, it was not meant to be in 1988, when the Oscar went to Jodie Foster for a stunning performance in The Accused.  Bad luck for Close, but in the end, Liaisons is a far superior film on the whole.

Cecile and her tutor fall in love

Merteuil  has never known love, having married for money and station.  She states her modus operandi early in the film, saying:

“When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn’t pleasure I was afer, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. “

She may, once in the lonely thoughts of a lazy day, have thought she was in love with her one-time paramour, Valmont, but most of what they share lies in their equal love of cruelty.   It has very little to do with romance.

John Malkovich plays the lead role of the Vicomte de Valmont, a hardened womanizer, who (like most aristocrats) has little to do with his time.  This, when combined with a sharp intelligence, has led him to treat other human beings like pawns in the cruel games he has invented to show his own prowess.  He is perhaps the only other human that the Marquise can call a “friend”, although this friendship has its limits and is sustained more by fear of what the other is capable of as opposed to mutual liking for one another.  Valmont is not a man so much as a spectre – impossible to nail down, but difficult to resist thanks to his charm and charisma.  He is the most dangerous when he is being sincere, which has never happened.   That is, until he meets Madame de Tourvel.

said the spider to the fly

Michelle Pfieffer campaigned in earnest to capture the supporting role of Madame de Tourvel, and after watching her subtle but aching performance, it is hard to imagine anyone else in the part.  She is so pale in the period-perfect makeup that she walks through the scenes like a fragile porcelain teacup.  Ironically, it is her character alone who sticks to her morals and demonstrates true courage to the end, making her the pillar of strength among others with all too-selfish human frailty.

Merteuil is on the verge of losing her latest lover to marriage with a much younger virgin, the dim but pretty Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman).  To lose a lover to anyone is an annoyance.  To lose a lover to an idiotic young wife is unacceptable.

Valmont, meanwhile, thinks he has found the ultimate challenge in the virtuous Madame de Tourvel.  The wife of a mere barrister, she is not the social equal of the other characters in the film, existing on the goodwill of friendship and honor, which is mostly one-sided.  Tourvel genuinely believes in the sanctity of marriage.  She faithfully loves and respects her husband.   Valmont smells blood.  He craves not Tourvel the person, but the opportunity to destroy her naive worldview.

Valmont himself states, “You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s is most important to her.”

Valmont and Mertueil enter into a pact.  Valmont must seduce the impenetrable Madame de Tourvel and bring her to the point of no return:  love.  It must be total abandon.   As a side bet, Mertueil offers Valmont the opportunity to seduce and ruin the young Cecile de Volanges, which would made the Marquise’s former lover the laughingstock of Paris.

Of course, these grand schemes must hit a roadblock at some point.  That roadblock is the noble and irresistable loveliness (both outside and in) of Madame de Tourvel.  Valmont, once he has won his prize, discovers that he has become the victim of powers much greater than himself.    He commits the ultimate treason, according to the Marquise, and falls in love.

The remaining portion of the film deals with the fallout from Valmont’s actions.  He has choices to make in terms of what is more important to him:  the opinions of society, or his own soul?

Dangerous Liaisons is a remarkable look at the machinations of society and human manipulation of our role in the grand scheme of things.   Having taught 9th graders for the past ten years, it is easy to see how little things have changed.  The importance of social status still hovers above our heads and makes us do ridiculous things in front of the watchful eyes of our peers.   I can’t help but imagine how much gleeful chaos Merteuil and Valmont could have created if they had been a part of the Facebook generation…

Movie Clip:

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