When watching a film like the 1988 best picture nominee Dangerous Liaisons, it helps to know something about history. The film takes place in 18th century France and, even though it’s never specifically stated in the film, I watched it very much aware that the story was taking place just a few years before the French Revolution. Even the aristocratic libertines who survive until the end of the film are probably destined to end up losing their lives at the guillotine. Even though you don’t see anyone losing their head during Dangerous Liaisons (nor do you hear anyone say, “Let them eat cake.”), the film offers up such an atmosphere of decadence and manipulation that it leaves the viewer with little doubt as to why the people occasionally feel the need to rise up and destroy their social betters.
Dangerous Liaisons tells the story of the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) and the Marquise de Mertuil (Glenn Close), two amoral members of the aristocracy who deal with their boredom by playing games with the emotions of others. Valmont is a notorious womanizer while Mertuil is obsessed with “dominating” the male sex and “avenging my own.” At the start of the film, Mertuil has discovered that a former lover is planning on marrying the innocent Cecile (18 year-old Uma Thurman, stealing every scene that she appears in), who has basically spent her entire life in a convent. Mertuil asks Valmont to seduce and take Cecile’s virginity before the wedding. At first, Valmont says that Cecile is to easy of a challenge and declines. Instead, Valmont has decided that he wants to seduce Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Phieffer), a married woman who is renowned for both her strong religious feelings and her virtuous character. Mertuil agrees that she will sleep with Valmont if he can provide her with written proof that he’s managed to seduce Tourvel.
Tourvel is staying with Valmont’s aunt (Mildred Natwick), which gives Valmont — with the help of his servant, Azolan (Peter Capaldi) — several chances to try to trick Tourvel into believing that he’s a better man than everyone assumes him to be. (With Azolan’s help, Valmont finds a poor family and donates money to them. Of course, he makes sure that word of this gets back to Tourvel.) However, Valmont then discovers that Cecile’s mother (Swoosie Kurtz) has been writing letters to Tourvel, warning her about Valmont’s lack of character. To get revenge, Valmont agrees to seduce Cecile.
Dangerous Liaisons, which is based on a play that was based on a novel, is sumptuous costume drama. If you’re like me and you love seeing how the rich and famous lived in past centuries, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in Dangerous Liaisons. With the elaborate costumes and the ornate sets, the film is a real visual feast.
The film is also a feast for those of us who enjoy good acting as well. With the exception of a very young Keanu Reeves (who is oddly miscast as the poor music teacher who falls in love with Cecile), the entire film is perfectly cast, right down to the most minor of characters. (I particularly enjoyed listening to Peter Capaldi, even if his Scottish accent occasionally did seem rather out-of-place in a film about the pre-Revolution France.) For me, the biggest shock was John Malkovich. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve always felt that Malkovich was a good character actor but he’s never been someone that I would think of as being sexy. However, he gives close to a perfect performance as Valmont and, oddly enough, the fact that he’s not really conventionally handsome only serves to make Valmont all the more seductive. Purring out his cynical dialogue and openly leering at every single woman in Paris, Malkovich turns Valmont into a familiar but all too appealing devil.
Dangerous Liaisons was later remade as Cruel Intentions, which is a film that I’ll be taking a look at very soon.