Sunday, April 22, 2012

Love and Revenge: The Blu-ray DVD Edition of Dangerous Liaisons

Choderlos de Laclos's 1782 novel, Les Liaiasons Dangereuses, is a diabolically unique book, a sly narrative about devious sexual games and merciless erotic warfare, told in the form of highly confidential letters between two French aristocrats – the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont – former lovers turned wicked schemers who set out to wreck the love lives of others just for the sport of it. The letters read like a series of confessionals where the artifice of their style carries the sharp pungency of juicy gossip, cadenced whispers delicately perfumed in malice. Les Liaiasons Dangereuses peeks under the accepted customs of the aristocracy only to uncover the latent sexual aggression, an arousal of decadence, that ceremonial behaviour masks. Naturally, the novel ended up condemned, banned and burned over the years as if the French aristocracy set out to destroy traces of themselves tucked away in those exchanges.

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 reaches 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 (to paraphrase the 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. Meanwhile Valmont, the lifelong womanizer, 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
The casting here is both daring and ingenious. Glenn Close uses her matronly authority to neatly disguise the deeper insecurities of the Marquise and the rage of a woman who speaks with a false authority. She justifies her behaviour out of implied feminist principles, as if she's acting purely as a woman trapped in a man's world. But the Marquise takes refuge in a woman's second class station so she can rationalize her basest instincts. Many critics were puzzled by the casting of John Malkovich (no surprise, really, since he's hardly an actor who stands the danger of being typecast as a romantic rogue). But his lisping weirdness is not only what's needed, it makes Valmont's ultimate act both believable and inevitable. Malkovich portrays Valmont with a comic understanding that his womanizing disguises a fragile ego, a man so vain about what others think of him that the Marquise can later expose his weakness and set loose his own self-destructive impulses. I don't see either how Michelle Pfeiffer's performance as Madame de Tourval could be better. Pfeiffer's rhapsodic beauty peaks through the tight bodice that has a stranglehold on the Madame's passions. On first glance, she appears earnest, if not pious, but her modesty actually puts a lid on the instinctual drives that Valmont uncorks (and later blows to pieces). The whole cast is sublime, from the ripe Uma Thurman to the shell-shocked Swoozie Kurtz, and Frears keeps the plot spinning without overshadowing his performers.

Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malcovich
If you ever needed to make a case for the superiority of Blu-ray technology over regular DVDs, you could look no further than Dangerous Liaisons. The new transfer vividly enriches Phillipe Rousselot's already sumptuous camerawork. The deep focus is so clear you can see the traces of pancake makeup decorating the pores of the actors' skins. By the end, when their makeup melts away, the emerging red in their faces carries the emotional jolt of a painting starting to bleed. The commentary track featuring Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears is also one of the most entertaining and informative ones I've yet heard on a DVD. Their contrasting voices, Hampton with his precise diction and Frears with his sleepy drawl, provide a humorous running dialogue that both informs us of the process of making the picture and their more recent reactions to watching their work unfold on the screen many years later.

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.

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