Dangerous Liaisons

Or to give it the correct title en français of Christopher Hampton‘s fine stage play, Les Liaisons Dangereusesitself an adaptation of a 1782 novel of the same name by Laclos.  But this being a movie aimed especially at the American domestic market, English was deemed the order of the day, hence the rebirth as Dangerous Liaisons, a tale of intrigue among the bored nobility in French society.

In my opinion, far and away the worst aspect of DL the movie is the Americanisation of what is historically and culturally a French tale, especially the undisguised American accents of the players.   Granted that I said the same about one of my all-time favourite movies, Amadeus, but the accents are out of place, an unnecessary distraction and indicative of the appalling American bias in the film industry.

If you were making a stylised and/or modernised adaptation there might be a case, but as a straight adaptation of the source material, otherwise very correct in its period context and detail (Oscar for costume design and ravishing production design and gorgeous cinematography, sympathetic period music), the voices stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

Thankfully, like Amadeus, there are very many plus points to outweigh this avoidable flaw – including, paradoxically, the performances of John Malkovich as the devious and manipulative Vicomte de Valois, Glenn Close as the even more evil and Machiavellian Marquise de Merteuil (“a virtuoso of deceit”), and Michelle Pfeiffer as the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (perhaps the only straightforward and sympathetic character on show in this corner of French society), who is corrupted by Valois at the behest of de Merteuil and ultimately withers and dies when her love is reciprocated but rejected as part of the Vicomte’s campaign to seduce the Marquise.

Malkovich, I am reliably informed by female friends, is a very sexy actor, one who oozes charisma from every pore – though these days his handsome face has acquired a certain lived-in quality.  Glenn Close is a very fine and skilled actress in her own right, but the second biggest weakness of the movie is that Malkovich’s Valois would surely find Close’s de Merteuil preferable to Pfeiffer’s de Tourvel.  Ah, but he is attracted by the whiff of power in his nostrils, by the thought that winning over this arch and noble schemer would be the ultimate challenge, for which he would deny his true love for Madame de Tourvel – or so we are led to believe (always assuming she in practice would fall for his somewhat cheesy chat-up line!)

In practice, I think his vanity would account for rather more than, since whatever qualities Close possesses, Pfeiffer’s natural beauty is not among them.  Close’s de, like Close herself, is big-boned, handsome rather than pretty, not a major prize in other than reputation, amused and calculating in equal measure.  A minor point maybe, for Close and Malkovich make a fine pair as game-playing rivals and, in the final analysis, bitter enemies, nonetheless.  They play a polite but deadly power game of social chess, using the lives of other people as pawns.

Meanwhile, one or two other actors contrive to look utterly miscast, not unlike pawns themselves.  Keanu Reeves, for example, is so far out of his comfort zone that you expect him to break into rap, but most adapt to their surroundings with aplomb, demonstrating LD’s credentials as a heavyweight movie;  an innocent-looking Uma Thurman, Swoosie Kurtz and Peter Capaldi all perform admirably.

It is credit to British director Stephen Frears, whose notable successes in a long and distinguished career include My Beautiful Laundrette, The Queen and Tamara Drewe that he pulls together this cast and allows the narrative to lead at a merry gallop, and to take the audience along for the ride.  This was a wise choice, playing to the strengths of Hampton’s splendidly cunning screenplay, for which the playwright also won an Oscar.   And the wily games of intrigue and seduction provide the twists and turns to keep us glued to the screen.  There is character development, changes of mood, light and shade, skill and subtlety.  Intelligence is such a rare quality in most modern movies, so wedded are they to genre and focus groups, so we should treasure them while we there are still some left.

Meanwhile, the war of attrition between the two anti-heroes is won posthumously by Valmont, a neat counterpoint the the increasingly savage nature of the battles between these sexual titans.  We are left with the haunting closing shot of a defeated de Merteuil soberly contemplating rejection by aristocratic society as she rubs the elaborate make-up from her face – white with rose red lips.

For clandestine sex at a time of genteel social ritual is the theme of this story, hence the title.  It is fought for one simple reason: the risks taken are not matched by the rewards offered.  This, you might reasonably presume, makes Dangerous Liaisons quite a modern morality tale in period costume, but then we do make the mistaken assumption that sex was only invented in our own time.  I have no doubt that they were at it like rabbits in the days of Laclos too!

Perhaps you would pigeon-hole DL as a dramatic tragedy, though not one that loses its knowing sense of humour.  As such, it succeeds wonderfully and can be warmly recommended.  Whether the same can be said of last year’s remake we can only wait and see – but I won’t be holding my breath.

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