DANGEROUS LIAISONS – 1988 – movie – A Classic Review - directed by – Stephen Frears – written by Christopher Hampton – based upon a 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos – the players are – the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), the Vicomte de
Valmont (John Malkovich), Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves), Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) - director of photography Philippe Rousselot – costumes by James Acheson.
This story takes place on the eve of the French revolution and vividly illustrates the huge disparity between the obscenely privileged, and the thread-bare peasants who are barely able to survive.
Our two bored, conniving and despicable principles are the Marquise de Merteuil – Close - and the Vicomte de Valmont – Malkovich. Both of whom are played to indefensible perfection.
We open with parallel scenes depicting the daily dressing rituals persons of their exalted station require before they can present themselves to the world. At first I thought of the hygiene of the day and how all that finery, oils and lotions were just a cover-up for a lack of hygiene.
But a little web work revealed that by the mid 1700s people of their status did, actually bathe, some-times on a daily basis. I was glad to find that little piece of information. It makes the oral sex scene somewhat more appealing.
But what these time consuming rituals do reveal are that these are lives that have sunk to self-centered boredom and are hinged upon social ritual.
Merteuil is on a furious vengeful path hoping to punish her ex-lover the Comte de Gercourt who has deserted her for his virtuous fiancée Cecile de Volanges. She approaches another ex-lover, the Vicomte de Valmont and offers him back into her bed if he will de-flower the innocent Cecile and embarrass Gercourt.
OK… we’re off and running…. at this point the plot thickens when Valmont reveals his own plan to seduce Madame de Tourvel. Meanwhile Cecile has fallen in love with her young, penniless music teacher, Chevalier Danceny.
Merteuil, in an effort to distract Danceny from Cecile, and to make Valmont’s job easier coaxes Danceny into her bed. All this leads to a series of betrayals ending in a deadly sword fight and Merteuil’s fall from social grace.
What ever pleasure, amusement or diversion this class enjoyed was to be short-lived. It is most unlikely that many of them survived the one year Reign of Terror that began in 1773. By July of the next year over 16,500 aristocrats had been guillotined.
This movie is made remarkable by the sum of many incredible elements; direction, performances, camera work, costumes and dialogue or the lack there-of.
So much of the actors' intentions and meaning are revealed, not by heated emotional outbursts but by subtle hints conveyed by the trace of smile, a slight turn of the head, or a subtle directed gaze. What rescues this tediously complex plot, and makes this movie worthwhile, is its extraordinary level of acting and filmmaking artistry.