Vintage Venom

by Jennifer Makowsky

26 February 2006

Looking for a classic bit of 'cruelty' with 'intentions' that are all too clear? Our resident literary 'liaison' argues the case for this 1988 masterwork of manipulation.
A scene from 1988's Dangerous Liaisons 

After racking my brain for something to write about based on current book-into-film adaptations, I’ve amassed a bucketful of crap, with titles like In Her Shoes, Memoirs of a Geisha (the relentless ads alone have repelled me), and Underworld: Evolution staring back at me. The obvious choice would be to discuss Capote, but I’ve yet to see the film and really don’t want to until I read In Cold Blood. It has been sitting in my “to-read” pile for years now.

So, what to do?

As I mulled this over and flipped through cable channels for ideas, I suddenly stumbled upon HBO, and Dangerous Liaisons. Even though I’ve seen Stephen Frears’ 1988 version of the film roughly 30 times already, I put the remote down and got comfortable. Every time I run into this film, no matter what I’m in the middle of doing, I drop everything and find myself rooted to the couch. No need to look any further for something to write about; Dangerous Liaisons is definitely a favorite film based on a favorite book.

When it was first published in 1782, Choderlos de Laclos’s novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, caused an uproar. The impact was still felt some 40 years later, when a criminal court outlawed the book. It was tossed onto the pyre of a public book-burning ceremony. Why the big stink? The story is a ferocious study of love, sex, and revenge among the 18th Century French upper crust where innocence is devoured by pure cunning and evil — something I’m sure the French noble class didn’t want to be associated with.

The main plot of the novel revolves around jaded aristocrats the Vicomte de Valmont, a depraved playboy, and the Marquis de Merteuil, a villainous widow whose current lover is about to leave her and marry an artless teenager named Cecile de Volanges. As the book opens, it is clear that the two have a romantic history together, but remain friends due to their mutual love of attacking honesty and virtue. In fact, they make a sport of it, competing with one another over who can seduce and destroy the most innocent souls.

Because the novel is epistolary, composed entirely of letters sent from one character to another, it would have been difficult to adapt, especially since the letters are overflowing with the character’s innermost thoughts and secrets rather than ‘actions’. Thus, Frears relied on Christopher Hampton’s screenplay. While the film version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was strictly based on the novel, it offered a more linear version of the classic’s narrative. In 1989 it went on to win the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.

The result is an arresting cinematic celebration of emotion, betrayal, and sexual intrigue, thanks in large part to the superior acting of the film’s cast. Glenn Close gives her best performance ever as the Marquis de Merteuil. Callous and void of any human warmth as reflected by her strict hairdo which pulls her face taut on all sides, she delivers her most memorable monologue near the beginning of the film. She explains to the Vicomte how she became so skilled at suppressing her emotions, saying:

“When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew then that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest to me, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learn how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork onto the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end it all came down to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.”

As the film unfolds, she and the Vicomte correspond with one another through letters. They also meet to discuss their schemes. Their conversations are deliciously wicked and clever, playing out like competitive matches of sharp words and wits.

In-between meetings with Valmont, the Marquis de Merteuil offers tainted advice to her cousin, Madame de Volanges (played by Swoozie Kurtz) and her niece, Cecile (played by Uma Thurman). Close is elegant and poised as she tries to convince the virginal Cecile to sleep with the Vicomte (who has been sneaking into her room and harassing her at night). The young Thurman is perfect as Cecille, all big eyes and girlish laughter, and her co-star Keanu Reaves is suitably cast as Le Chevalier Danceny, Cecille’s young, dumb boyfriend and the Marquis’s boy toy.

John Malkovich seizes the role of Valmont in all his charming and devious glory. He’s wickedly seductive as he attempts to capture the interest of the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (played by Michelle Pfeiffer) whom he hopes to win over as part of a bet proposed by the Marquis de Merteuil.

As the chaste and delicate Madame de Tourvel, Pfeiffer is like a gazelle, ducking behind her parasols and coyly rebuffing Valmont’s advances, while still demonstrating the tension present between her wish to remain faithful to her husband and her helpless attraction to the flirtatious Vicomte. When she finally does give into Valmont’s solicitations, their chemistry spills off the screen in one of the most acute and stunning cinematic love scenes I have ever seen.

But this is not a happy story, which is consequently one of the reasons why I’m so fond of it. The film is firm in its refusal to become a happily-ever-after chick flick. When the Marquis realizes that Valmont may be in love with his mistress, she demands he give her up, and Valmont, worried his reputation as a lady’s man may be in danger, gives into her request, resulting in the beginning of everyone’s destruction.

The film is a faithful translation of the book, the biggest difference being that instead of contracting smallpox and losing an eye as she does at the end of the novel, the Marquise de Merteuil suffers a more metaphysical, emotional downfall. It is no less unpleasant, though.

At the film’s close she is jeered by her peers at the opera, publicly censured after her letters to Valmont have been circulated and all her conspiracies exposed. The result is Close’s sensational swansong. Her smile vanishes and she trips a little on her way out. Next, we find her sitting before a mirror, wiping tears as well as paper-white foundation from her cheeks to reveal the pink, human skin underneath. And then the credits roll. No fireworks, no gooey afterthought; just a woman left with her misdeeds glaring back at her. It’s a truly powerful ending to what is one of the most cynical and powerful reflections on adoration and passion ever written or played out on screen.

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