Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dangerous Collaborations: An Interview with John Malkovich

John Malkovich in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons

In the late eighties, Critics at Large’s David Churchill (1959 – 2013) appeared alongside Kevin Courrier on the radio show On the Arts at CJRT-FM (now JAZZ 91-FM) in Toronto, where they reviewed current cinema. Among the movies they discussed was Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988), an adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel about the sexual conquests and cunning erotic games of two French aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who mercilessly destroy the lives of those around them for their own gratification. As daring and devious as the novel it was based on, Dangerous Liaisons pulled the rug out from under British period drama conventions by using an all-American cast headed by Glenn Close as Merteuil and John Malkovich as Valmont.

When Dangerous Liaisons came out in 1988, David sat down with John Malkovich to talk about the challenges of playing the complex villain Valmont. In light of Malkovich’s recent turn as the infamous seducer Casanova in the chamber opera play The Giacomo Variations, which Deirdre Kelly reviewed for Critics at Large earlier this month, we decided to run David’s interview.

Malkovich as Valmont

dc: The characters of Valmont and Merteuil are so ambiguous: you’re completely repulsed by them and completely attracted to them. Why was that the point of view you decided to take in the movie?

jm: The normal person likes people like that. They like to see people acting out, and being cruel to each other. Possibly because we want to, on some level. They enjoy it.

dc: Did you feel that you yourself identified in any way with Valmont, and what he was doing?

jm: I agree with Tennessee Williams that the one unforgivable thing in the world is deliberate cruelty. It’s completely unforgivable. So I can’t say I identify with him at all on that level because when you're playing any role you get vicarious pleasure of some sort out of it, whether it’s vicarious pleasure out of love or lust or sex or guilt or tragedy or humor. Or just plain attention.

dc: Do you figure Valmont was just acting out of a desire for attention? Or was it because he felt the people around him were not worthy of his intellect? There seems to be this sense that he knows he’s better than these people, he knows he can manipulate these people – and so it becomes a game between him and Merteuil to see who can do it better.

jm: I think that’s partially true, but my personal feeling is that it sprang from something much deeper and more cynical, a kind of fatalism about the possibility of love – of a lasting or real love, or of fulfillment on this planet.

dc: It seems like it’s almost impossible for Valmont to have love in this world because of how he’s conducted his life.

jm: That’s true, but then conversely the way he conducted his life really sprang from that belief. It’s hard to say which came first. But what Valmont discovers in the course of the story and what causes his destruction, because it goes against his feelings, thoughts and self-image, is that not only is he capable of inspiring real love and passion in someone and of really destroying them, but he’s capable of feeling love, and he may be worthy of feeling it. That’s what destroys him. He can’t live with that because it goes against everything he ever thought about himself.

dc: It’s trying to change your personality at a moment’s notice. It just can’t work. And especially in a society like eighteenth-century France, where everything was based on pose and manner, on what you appear to be. One of the most intriguing lines in the film is when Valmont says to Merteuil, “I’ve got my reputation to think of.” When most people say that, they mean being perceived as a good and worthy person. With Valmont, it means being perceived as the seducer and the rake.

jm: The reputation he speaks of in that part is that if someone isn’t difficult to seduce, really, what’s the point of it. He says about that woman that she’d be on her back before you’d unwrap the first bunch of flowers. It’s too simple. He says about Tourvel’s character that to seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervor and the happiness of her marriage, what could possibly be more prestigious. And that sort of sums him up.

dc: I’ve read recently that you referred to director Stephen Frears as a nightmare, a pervert, and a maddening man who didn’t know when to shut up.

jm: We could be very argumentative with each other, but everything that’s good about the film I would credit to him. I’ve certainly never been challenged like that before. I didn’t always like it – I mean, in all the ways that people don’t like a challenge. It upsets their equilibrium. It throws them off their game plan. It makes them view something in a way they had not viewed it before. And that’s what Stephen does wonderfully. He did drive me crazy a lot. But so what?

dc: Valmont is somebody you said yourself you don’t find attractive in any way. A lot of actors would say that’s difficult to play. But it seems like Frears brought that out of you.

jm: Partially that, and partially that I maybe had different ideas about how to bring that out. It was the most collaborative thing I’ve ever done, even if that meant combative at times.  It was still very much a collaboration.

David Churchill (1959 – 2013) was a film critic and novelist. Seemingly born with a pen in his hand, he was a freelance writer for over 25 years. Most recently, he worked in the publications department of Vintages, the fine wine and spirits division of the LCBO, where he wrote about beverage alcohol. His first novel, entitled The Empire of Death, is available for order at The Eye of the Storm, his second novel, will be released posthumously.

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