Sunday, July 3, 2016

Dangerous Liaisons: A Review


I was obviously too young to see Dangerous Liaisons when it premiered, this wicked tale of French decadence and sexual one-upmanship not being considered proper family viewing.  Of course, I'm also from an age when parents didn't take their children to films unless they were family films (or marketed as such, thus explaining why I suffered the traumas of both Gremlins and Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom).  Back when I was a child, if your parents wanted to go to the movies, they either hired a babysitter or left you with relatives for a few hours while they went out.  Nowadays, parents opt to take their children no matter how young with them to see a movie the parents want to see, even if it's to see things as varied as Fifty Shades of Grey or Insidious or Deadpool.  With that, something like Dangerous Liaisons is downright virginal. 

Dangerous Liaisons is a sharp, intelligent film about the dark side of love and seduction, how the players can get played themselves, and how love can be deadly to those who fall into it.

The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a sexual adventuress, wants revenge on the Comte de Bastide, the lover who jilted her.  She asks her equally nefarious 'friend', the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce her ex-lover's fiancée, Cecile (Uma Thurman), recently out of the convent, as a way of punishing and humiliating him.  Valmont finds the whole thing rather boring and beneath him, stating that seducing a convent-educated girl who knows nothing of the world (or the pleasures of the flesh) would be far too easy.  He has his eyes on a real challenge: seducing Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a respected and respectable woman known for her fidelity and piety.  To have such a truly noble woman, a woman whose reputation is above-board even among the decadent French, as one of his many, many lovers is for him the ultimate challenge.  A secret deal is arranged: if Valmont succeeds in seducing de Tourvel (with written proof of their liaison), Merteuil will indulge Valmont with the pleasure of her company.

Now the two begin their wicked, wicked work.  Valmont takes advantage of the fact that de Tourvel is staying with his aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Mildred Natwick) and takes a very different approach to his efforts at seduction.  Rather than use his usual tricks, he will seduce her with sincerity and piety.  Valmont professes love to de Tourvel, declaring that his love for her has redeemed him from his former past.  No dice, de Tourvel essentially says, for she has been warned about Valmont.  He is frustrated in his efforts, and gets his manservant to seduce de Tourvel's maid to get at Madame's correspondence.  Valmont learns who has been doing the warning: it is Cecile's mother, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), Merteuil's cousin.  Enraged by this, he opts to seduce Cecile as payback, and does so quickly.

De Volanges notices that something is amiss with her daughter, and asks Merteuil for help.  She knows nothing of the fact that Merteuil has been playing a wicked game of her own.  Having failed to get Valmont's help initially, she opts to take matters into her own hands by bringing the Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves), a poor music teacher and intellectual, into the de Volanges residence.  Soon, her machinations get them to fall in love.  Merteuil then sweeps in and suggests that a 'dangerous liaison' between Danceny and Cecile has begun.  That is what sent them to take refuge with Madame de Rosemonde.  Now, after Valmont's seduction, Merteuil sweeps in and gives Cecile her own womanly advise: to take as many lovers as she can, and let Valmont be her 'tutor' in the art of pleasure.

Valmont continues to whittle down de Tourvel's resistance until she has fallen in love with him and sleeps with him.  However, Valmont has done something he has never done with any woman before: he has fallen in love with de Tourvel as well.  This does not dissuade him from going to Merteuil for her to keep her side of the bargain, but after learning that his feelings run deeper for de Tourvel than she hoped (and perhaps with anger that he doth not have those feelings for her), she refuses to sleep with him, using the lack of written proof as pretext.  It is clear (except perhaps to Valmont) that her refusal comes more from anger and jealousy than from the strict rules of their bargain. Merteuil has wasted no time for her own pursuits, having seduced Danceny into being her newest lover.

The war between Valmont and Merteuil continues, and she taunts him by subtly suggesting that should it be known that he has fallen in  love with someone, his reputation as a lothario will be wrecked.  In his mixture of emotions, Valmont dismisses de Tourvel with the constant refrain of "It is beyond my control".  Guilt-ridden and hurt, de Tourvel retreats to a convent and becomes violently ill.  Merteuil continues to refuse Valmont, and has gone further by informing Danceny of Valmont's seduction of Cecile.  Angered, he challenges Valmont to a duel...and wins.  As Valmont lays dying, his final requests are that Danceny tell the dying de Tourvel that she has his heart, and for him to make public the correspondence between him and Merteuil, revealing all their schemes.  When the truth is revealed, particularly the fact that she had a firm hand in de Tourvel's death (she essentially dying of a broken heart), she is socially ruined.  Attending the opera in her finest, the theater first goes silent at her appearance, then one "boo" turns into mass hisses from the theater at large (even the orchestra joins in).  Humiliated and socially disgraced, the Marquise de Merteuil removes her make-up, and as the screen fades to black, we can see tears slowly coming down her face.

Beneath the lavish costumes and sets of Dangerous Liaisons is a seedy story of two reprehensible people done in by the one force they deny: love.  Despite themselves, Valmont and Merteuil have discovered what love is, and both are destroyed by it.  Valmont is destroyed when he falls in love, Merteuil when she denies it.  It's a universal story, and one of the things that make the film work is the cast.

Glenn Close is brilliant as the Marquise de Merteuil because we see that behind her elegance and sophistication is a deeply hurt and angry woman.  She is frustrated by the strictness of French society on women and has decided to use the only weapon she has at her disposal: her body, keeping her heart locked.  It is Merteuil's hubris, her contempt for the emotions and feelings of others that ultimately bring her down, especially when she discovers that she is as vulnerable to love as those she plays with.  Close brings both the wickedness of Merteuil and her deep vulnerability to her performance, and it is a showcase for her range.

Malkovich is a surprise choice for the rakish Valmont given he isn't what can be called traditionally handsome.  That, however, is part of the brilliance of his performance.  It would be easy to believe that a gorgeous-looking man (say a Ryan Phillippe or a Channing Tatum...assuming Tatum could actually act) could be a seducer.  It is harder to think the more plain-looking Malkovich could be.  The fact that he could do it, and do it so well, is a credit to the fine actor that he is (making the failure of the Academy to not nominate him for Best Actor while giving Close and Pfeiffer two of the film's seven Oscar nominations all the more bizarre).

Pfeiffer is equally brilliant as the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, making her strong moral character's fall and tragic end all the more heartbreaking.  Pfeiffer is a beautiful woman, but I think her performance here should silence any critic who thinks her beauty alone is what carries her career.

Stephen Frears (who also was overlooked Oscar time) directed his cast (including Reeves and Thurman, who were newcomers, along with a small role for future Doctor Who Peter Capaldi) so well.  He kept things going smoothly where the film doesn't feel like a stuffed costume drama or a slog.

Dangerous Liaisons (which was remade and updated as Cruel Intentions) is still a strong case on the evils of using sex as a weapon against others, especially when said weapon is outdone by a more powerful one: love.  Love and Sex don't always go together, and today even less so.  While the film can be appreciated for its ancien regime setting, the core of Dangerous Liaisons is in the cruelty of people who toy with other's affection...and how payback can be quite brutal.    


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