Dangerous Liaisons

1988, Movie, R, 120 mins


Choderlos de Laclos reportedly said of his epistolary 1782 novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, that he created it with the intent to shock. That novel, on which British director Stephen Frears's first American feature film is based, did much of what Laclos hoped, the first edition becoming the succes de scandale of Paris. Frears's version, a costume drama set in pre-Revolutionary France, isn't precisely shocking, but its classic story of sexual power, depravity, cruelty, and deceit is rendered with force and without compromise.

The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) are monsters of the aristocracy, former lovers who spend their days planning sexual seductions and vengeance. Merteuil makes Valmont a proposition: if he deflowers Cecile (Uma Thurman), the 16-year-old future wife of another of Merteuil's former lovers, she will gratefully reward Valmont with her favors. Valmont instead devotes his attention to the greater challenge of seducing Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer)--a highly moral, married, and convent-bred young woman. Plying his suit with the greatest skill and subtlety, Valmont eventually breaks down Tourvel's reserve. In the meantime, to please Merteuil, he also deflowers Cecile--who, after yielding to Valmont, becomes insatiably sensual. DANGEROUS LIAISONS is less about debauchery and amorality than it is about the sexual and psychological domination of one person by another.

Malkovich and Close take a while before they shift into expert gear, the former lacking the physical grace of a Don Juan, the latter vapid in a Connecticut housewife kind of way. Nor does it help that Close, despite her talent, is utterly devoid of sex appeal. But Pfeiffer is a revelation in her part, almost stealing the film. Her relative stillness, masking internal unrest, makes her character seem more authentically "period" than her co-stars, who have adopted no formal period mannerisms. But its vernacular style allows the film to connect easily with present-day morals, sexual politics, and thirst for power. While not perfect, LIAISONS is miles above Forman's bland VALMONT. leave a comment

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