#225 Dangerous Liaisons
(1988, Stephen Frears)
“You’ll find the shame is like the pain, you only feel it once”
Dangerous Liaisons is a floofy period drama, featuring elaborate outfits and sets, and dialogue that feels like everyone’s read too much Shakespeare for their own good. However, this is a period drama with lots of sex, so maybe it’s not as stuffy and boring as expected from the genre (at least, as far as I’m concerned). Let’s take a look, shall we?
Dangerous Liaisons is set in the 1700s and centres on the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), two amoral French aristocrats who use sex as a weapon to get what they want and to corrupt those around them. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce her cousin’s daughter Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), fresh out of a convent and arranged to marry Merteuil’s former lover. However, Valmont is more interested in seducing the highly religious and married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). A deal is made that Merteuil will sleep with Valmont if he succeeds in seducing Tourvel. Shenanigans ensue.
God, this is a complicated movie. It features a soap opera style plot that weaves its way through a tangled mess of confused partnerships and liaisons and at times it’s hard to keep track of who’s sleeping with who and for what reason and who’s getting revenge on who and whatever else.
However, it is an oddly fascinating watch. It can be a little confusing, but it does all hold together. It is hard to like any of the characters, but that’s the whole point. The movie wants to swoop us along the journey of these amoral people and maybe hope they get sorted out by the end.
It’s also very interesting to see how the sexual antics relate to the gender issues of the time. Merteuil admits that she seduces men to try and get revenge on society’s treatment of her gender. She takes charge in the bedroom as a way of gaining control that she often isn’t afforded elsewhere. It’s in this exploration of gender issues that the movie manages to become interesting.
It also helps that the movie is very technically good. The sets and costumes are magnificent extravaganzas that perfectly fit the decadent lifestyle these aristocrats lead. A great deal of work went in recreating the visual style of 1700s France and it’s easy to be won over by it.
The performances are excellent too. Close and Malkovich are both perfect for their roles, with Close being excellent at being manipulative, vengeful and scheming, while Malkovich comes across as sleazy in all the right ways. Pfeiffer depicts the tortured mindset of a woman torn between her desires and her virtue, and Uma Thurman is great as a confused teenager. Only performance that isn’t that great is Keanu Reeves as Cecile’s music tutor and occasional lover, but then again, it is Keanu Reeves, and it is hard to distance him from his role in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, released only a year after Dangerous Liaisons.
But for all these good points, it really is hard to get past the absurdity of everything that happens. Gender politics aside, the movie feels part soap opera, part pretentious morality play. The plot feels gossipy when you describe it, and the movie seems to exist simply to make viewers tut at such disgraceful behaviour.
There are also some seriously questionable plot points. Valmont rapes Cecile, who is then happy to sleep with him multiple times after that, and that bugged me so much. Essentially, she was raped until she enjoyed it. I’m sure plenty of rape victims will say that never happens.
I also never understood the initial deal. Merteuil’s demand is basically “do this thing you intend to do anyway, and I’ll give you a reward for the sake of it” when it would make more sense for her to push Valmont to seduce Cecile, SINCE THAT’S WHAT SHE WANTS TO HAPPEN.
Also, despite the effort put into the costumes and sets, no effort whatsoever was put into giving the characters appropriate accents. The mostly American cast all use their normal accents, and it’s jarring to see these high society Europeans talking like, well, Hollywood actors. It doesn’t help that the sole non-American actor (Peter Capaldi) uses his natural Scottish accent and stands out even more, even though his accent is the only one that feels like it fits the setting.
Sure, I’m not asking for Malkovich to go around pretending to be French, but at least attempt English accents or something. But then again, that’s potentially asking Keanu Reeves to attempt an English accent, and nobody wants that (again).
Ultimately, Dangerous Liaisons is a movie I expected to hate and merely found passable instead. It exceeded my expectations, but it was still difficult to get beyond the soap opera storyline and period drama floofiness. Good if you like floofy period dramas, I guess, but I can’t see myself watching it again.
Starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman & Keanu Reeves
Written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (novel) and Christopher Hampton
Produced by Norma Heyman & Hank Moonjean
Music by George Fenton
Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot
Edited by Mick Audsley
Favourite Scene: Merteuil discussing the gender politics of the age and her manipulation of said gender politics
Scene That Bugged Me: Everything surrounding the rape scene involving Cecile
Watch it if: You like floofy period soap operas
Avoid it if: You really don’t want to see John Malkovich look like Tommy Wiseau
Posted on October 15, 2013, in 1980s, Drama, Historical and tagged christopher hampton, dangerous liaisons, french aristocrats, glenn close, john malkovich, keanu reeves, michelle pfeiffer, movies, period drama, peter capaldi, sex, stephen frears, uma thurman. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.