Dangerous Liaisons (United States/United Kingdom, 1988)

July 30, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Dangerous Liaisons Poster

As happens with surprising regularity in the movie industry, at the time when Dangerous Liaisons entered production, it was not the only adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' 18th century French novel on the drawing board. The rival film, Valmont, was being readied by director Milos Forman who, despite recognizing he would lose the race to the box office to Stephen Frears, was determined to press on. Ultimately, Dangerous Liaisons opened nearly a year ahead of Valmont and was deemed much more successful, both creatively and financially. Frears' version captured seven Oscars (of which it won three) and was critically lauded. Forman's was greeted much as an afterthought, receiving mediocre reviews and landing one lonely nomination (for Costume Design, which it did not win).

Perhaps the plot of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a cynical novel about nasty characters doing unconscionable things, resonated in the late 1980s and 1990s. Indeed, no fewer than four versions of the story made it to the screen during an 11-year time span. In addition to Dangerous Liaisons and Valmont, there were In the Company of Men (which employed many of the same ideas) and Cruel Intentions. Perhaps people found something appealing in the notion that anyone, including the most dissolute and emotionally aloof of all, can be undone by love. Or maybe there's something pleasing about watching vile individuals living in a rotting society getting their comeuppance. In Dangerous Liaisons, everything starts as a game or a sport, but nothing ends that way.

The film, like the novel, takes place in pre-revolutionary France, where the decadence of the nobility has been escalated to epic proportions. In this world, the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Mertueil (Glenn Close) are former lovers and close confidants. He is known as the most notorious seducer of women and she is recognized as a master manipulator. They enjoy each other's company and lob one-liners at each other like live grenades. Mertueil has a request for Valmont: she wants him to deflower Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), the young daughter of her friend, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz). Cécile is to be married to Mertueil's lover, and she doesn't want the new bride to go to her marriage bed as a virgin. Valmont refuses, arguing it would be too easy. Besides, he is engaged in another game: penetrating the defenses of the notoriously virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Mertueil is intrigued by this endeavor and offers Valmont a reward: if he can seduce Madame de Tourvel and provide written proof of her indiscretion, Mertueil will spend one night with Valmont re-living their former passion.

Valmont's downfall is, of course, that in succeeding to seduce Madame de Tourvel, he falls in love, and with love comes the greatest unhappiness he has ever experienced. The emotion is so foreign to him that he doesn't understand how to tame or control it. Mertueil, who is jealous and angry at what she views to be a betrayal, acts like the serpent in the Garden. She plays on Valmont's vanity, which is stronger than his love, and forces him to break off the affair. All ends in misery with no one, least of all those who survive the ordeal, coming to a happy end. Frears directs with an edge, recognizing the tragedy that envelops and overwhelms these characters. There's acid wit in the dialogue and a tongue-in-cheek sense of satire in the way he frames the proceedings but, in the end, his approach to Dangerous Liaisons is less one of comedy than of drama. (Contrast this with Forman's Valmont, which has a lighter, more playful tone.)

To say that Frears' casting is unconventional is an understatement. As unlikely as John Malkovich may be as an infamous ladies' man, the actor delivers his lines with relish. Kissing Jessica Stein refers to the concept of "sexy ugly" and that would seem to fit Malkovich here. Likewise, Close is nowhere near what one might envision for Mertueil, but her ability to savor the dialogue and deliver it with perfect inflection allows us to accept her in the role. Michelle Pfeiffer, who turned down the opportunity to play Mertueil in Valmont (and would later portray a Mertueil-like character in Frears' Chéri), is excellent as the virginal Madame de Tourvel. Her pain and confusion come across with palpable intensity. Uma Thurman (in one of her first films, at age 18) seems a little too worldly as the supposedly innocent Cécile, and Keanu Reeves (before he became Ted) is simply awful as Cécile's true love, Le Chevalier Danceny.

Dangerous Liaisons looks and feels much like any well-mounted period piece, with impeccable costumes and top-of-the-line production design. (Valmont can also make similar claims.) One notable oddity is that the entire cast is American and the absence of British (or French) accents seems almost out-of-place in this setting, although this is obviously a better choice than to have everyone attempt accents, which would likely be distracting. This is a testament to how conditioned we have become to British actors headlining period pieces. (Valmont is even stranger with its mix of British and American intonations.) It's a curiosity why Frears, a British director filming primarily on location in France, would choose to go with American actors. In the case of Malkovich, Close, and Pfeiffer, his choices were vindicated, but one has to suppose that production pressures influenced casting.

Dangerous Liaisons is to be savored for the delicious interplay between Merteuil and Valmont, for the manner in which they view "civil" social intercourse like a hunt, and for the ultimate ways in which each is hoist by his or her own petard. The screenwriter is Christopher Hampton, who based the movie on his play (which, in turn, was adapted from the novel), and it translates well from the stage to the screen. There's energy and verve in every exchange - something that's not true of the more laconic Valmont. This is one of those movies in which plot plays second fiddle to dialogue. Dangerous Liaisons is more about what characters say to one another, and how they say it, than it is about what they do.

Dangerous Liaisons proved to be a major turning point in Frears' career. Before 1988, he was known primarily as the director of small, well-received British "art pictures" (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). After this, he would become increasingly mainstream, starting with The Grifters and continuing through to 2006's The Queen and beyond. Working with Hampton's script and a group of actors that (mostly) understand how to deliver the centerpiece dialogue, Frears fashions a memorable costume drama that is notable for its venomous streak. Even those who are generally bored by period pieces may derive pleasure from observing the verbal slashes and ripostes of Malkovich's Valmont and Close's Merteuil.

Dangerous Liaisons (United States/United Kingdom, 1988)

Run Time: 1:59
U.S. Release Date: 1988-12-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1