Film Review: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)


Phrase “timeless classic” is overused, but there are works of fiction really worthy of such description. One of those is Les Liaisons dangereuses, 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, one of the most scandalous books in the history of French literature. The book proved to be quite popular in subsequent centuries, serving as basis for numerous stage, film and television adaptations, often set in times and places different than the original. One of the best known adaptations - Dangerous Liaisons, celebrated 1985 play by British writer Christopher Hampton, was more faithful to the source and Hampton used same approach while writing the screenplay for its 1988 film version, directed by Stephen Frears.

The plot is set in pre-revolutionary France. Two main characters are members of spoiled aristocratic elite that enjoy life of luxury and, with nothing better to do, spend all their time seducing and manipulating each other in depraved and increasingly cruel games. Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (played by Glenn Close) is a former lover of Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (played by John Malkovich), man notorious for his womanising. Merteuil has been recently abandoned by one of her lovers and wants to get revenge by humiliating defloration of his young virgin fiancée Cécile de Volanges (played by Uma Thurman). Valmont at first rejects, seeing seduction of a young naive girl as too easy. Instead he proposes another wager – if he manages to seduce Madame Marie de Tourvel (played by Michelle Pfeiffer), married woman known for her virtuous ways, Merteuil would allow him privilege to spend one night with her. Wager is accepted and both parties start manipulating their friends and acquaintances with Valmont ultimately succeeding to seduce both Cécile and Tourvel. However, he also finds out that he genuinely fell in love with Tourvel and when Merteuil finds about it she feels jealous and begins to plot another cruel game that would ultimately end in tragedy.

This film at first looks very much like the Merchant Ivory productions and similar period pieces that looked like subscribed to Oscar and other prestigious awards’ nominations. Dangerous Liaisons had relatively high budget and it was well-spent on costumes, sets and various period details with good cinematography by Philippe Rousselot putting authentic French locations to good use. It is, however, Hampton’s Oscar-awarded script that was crucial to film’s ultimate success. Hampton worked very hard to make the film different from the stage play and evade artificial theatricality, with many of the scenes taking place outdoors and featuring dramatic action, accentuated by musical score by George Fenton. Stephen Frears, British director until then best known for contemporary urban dramas, handles the material well and Dangerous Liaisons remains fascinating and exciting, despite almost all action taking place in form of words or letters, the latter ingeniously made interesting through the scenes in which they are written on lovers’ nude bodies.

Such film, however, couldn’t have worked without really good cast. Frears wisely decided to discard British actors (who seemed to be subscribed for this kind of period pieces) and instead used American cast (with Scottish actor Peter Capaldi in the role of Valmont’s valet Azolan being notable exception). And the cast gathered is indeed great. John Malkovich might look not attractive enough to play unstoppable conqueror of women’s hearts, but here he gives brilliant performance, arguably one of the best in his career and he makes his character quite believable. Glenn Close is magnificent in the role of a woman who, despite all her justifications, represents embodiment of utter, manipulative evil. Michelle Pfeiffer was also excellent in her role as a woman who desperately tries to do the right thing before succumbing to manipulation and her deep desires; her performance also work well because of great chemistry with Malkovich, additionally helped that both actors had love affair in real life. Uma Thurman is also good in one of her early and potentially thankless roles (which included nude scene) and it is easy to understand how Dangerous Liaisons paved the way for her future career. Supporting members of the cast are also good, namely Swoosie Kurtz as Cécile’s mother and veteran Mildred Natwick in her last role as Valmont’s old aunt. Unfortunately, Keanu Reeves in the role of Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, Cécile’s impoverished music teacher and potential lover, is simply terrible and almost ruins the film, especially in the film’s melodramatic finale during which his character plays relatively important role. Despite that, Dangerous Liaisons is still entertaining and effective film that could be recommended even to the audience that cares little about classics of world literature.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)

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