Director Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons, the 1988 film adaptation of Christopher Hampton's Tony Award-winning stage play, based on the de Laclos's novel, was never in danger of being condemned, banned, or burned. But it sure does full justice to the book's wickedness. Perhaps, since Frears (having already directed My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) is a true modernist, he goes beyond providing a cleverly detached voyeurism and goes instead for the emotional and erotic power buried in the material. Most period costume dramas linger on the decor so we can swoon over all the pageantry, or they take the moral high road of Peter Greenaway's The Draughtsman's Contract which dispenses with the impacted eroticism in sexual gamesmanship in exchange for cerebral muscle-flexing (paraphrasing critic Terrence Rafferty, Greenaway is the beach bully as aesthete who kicks art in our faces). Frears, however, shows far more daring, setting up the combatants and their rules of engagement so that we can watch their masks melt away. We ultimately come to feel the full consequences of their carnal games. The artifice gives way to real flesh and blood, blood that even literally spills by the end, as Frears cuts the chords that hold the characters aloft.
The story opens with the Marquise (Glenn Close) seeking revenge on a recent lover by having his young new fiancee, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), the daughter of Merteuil's cousin Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), seduced and scandalized. Merteuil turns to Valmont (John Malkovich) to do the dirty deed, but he doesn't feel its worthy of his reputation. Besides he has his heart set on trying to seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who just happens to be spending time at his aunt's manor house while her husband is abroad. Once Valmont discovers that de Volanges had been secretly writing to de Tourvel to warn her against his wicked designs, Valmont decides to follow Merteuil's scheme. He carries it out by taking advantage of Cécile's secret love for her music teacher, the Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves), a penniless suitor who Cécile's mother doesn't find worthy of her daughter. But Valmont's main target still remains Madame de Tourvel, who, despite suspecting his disingenuousness, ultimately gives in to his relentless advances. Valmont, the lifelong womanizer, though surprises himself by unexpectedly falling in love with de Tourvel setting in motion an act of betrayal that lays waste to all parties.
|Glenn Close and John Malkovich|
|Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malcovich|
It's rare that a period costume picture implicates the audience in the manner that Dangerous Liaisons does. Without sacrificing our enjoyment of the ornamental beauty of the lavish settings, Frears gives us fully formed characters that draw us into their devious wiles only to have us watch in horror as they destruct. Dangerous Liaisons is a lavish high comedy but it ultimately delivers the full kick of a tragic drama.
– Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa). His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. With John Corcelli, Courrier is currently working on another radio documentary for CBC Radio's Inside the Music called The Other Me: The Avant-Garde Music of Paul McCartney.