Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Director: Stephen Frears
Cast: John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Keanu Reeves
I caught this movie on HBO during the last week and fell back into it like a chaise longue. The thing I love about Dangerous Liaisons (adapted from the 18th century epistolic novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses) is that it is two movies in one (and they may be mutually exclusive): it’s a complex social commentary and/or a terrific, sexy soap opera.
While I have not read the original novel, from what I know this film follows the original story pretty closely. Not long before the French Revolution, the Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Close) are old friends and older lovers whose primary drive in life seems to be making other people as miserable as they are. The Marquise holds a grudge against the Volanges family and employs the Vicomte to avenge it, enticing him to seduce the young Volanges daughter, Cecile (Thurman) so that she is ruined for her contracted marriage. But these plans go awry due to two unforeseen circumstances: in simultaneously seducing the famed moralist Madame de Tourvel (Pfeiffer) the Vicomte begins to fall in love, and Cecile begins to fall in love herself with the Chevalier Danceny (Reeves… and don’t worry, he’s not in it very much). Needless to say, pandemonium and nakedness ensues.
The movie won a few Oscars, mostly for how gorgeous it is. Somehow, at this period in time, Malkovich is actually believable as a… how might we term it… “lothario”? What I’m trying to say is that this period piece looks well on him. See The Illusionist to similarly witness Edward Norton wear the Victorian age like he was born in it. Glenn Close got nominated for Best Actress and the whole thing was nominated for Best Picture.
This movie came out quite a while ago, and this wasn’t even the first time that I, myself, have seen it, but I thought it was such a perfect summer movie that I should write about it here. The characters are quite awesomely wicked and the costuming is drool-worthy. Someone came into the living room while I was watching this movie and commented that they couldn’t stand it because the characters were such horrible people. I would agree except for the fact that I have sat all the way through previously and learned that each character gets justice handed to them in some form. I like wicked characters as much as the next person, but I like them to learn from their mistakes or else be punished for them, or at least have a believable reason as to why they can continue to be wicked. I think it’s the writer in me that craves for complete character and story arcs. In the end, this film does not disappoint.
It's also a great story about the end of the Ancien Regime in France. It could also be said that this was a great movie about the 1980s, as it were: extreme capitalism and people who seemed devoid of social foresight. At any rate, the aristocracy was so debauched and out-of-touch with reality that their scheming and amorality was leading to their own downfall, which is just what happens to our aristocratic characters. Even the Vicomte is able to predict his own demise toward the end of the film. There is also light commentary on the different social roles given to men and women at this time period from the Marquise:
"When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew 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, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn't pleasure I was after, it was knowledge. 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, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die."
She doubtlessly follows her own promise through to the end. It's easy to say that she didn't have to be so cold-hearted and ruthless toward everyone, but then we watch every single character fulfill her prophecy. In a way, the Marquise is her own Machiavelli, although she is not exactly dealing with matters of state here.
So whether you want to see intrigue and social commentary, or just want to watch a lot of pretty people screw each other over, I highly recommend this movie.
See the IMDB page for Dangerous Liaisons