DANGEROUS LIAISONS, 1988
Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil enter into a high stakes game of lust, love and revenge in eighteenth century France. The seasoned seducers have the field to themselves until love and jealousy outflank them.
Oscar wins: Best Costume design; best screenwriting; best art decoration, set decoration;
Four additional Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.
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Sumptuous from beginning to finish – the term ‘classic’ was coined for this. The three leads: John Malkovich; Glenn Close; and Michelle Pfeiffer dazzle with their virtuosity. The costumes and settings transport you to another world. But buyer beware: the story is scandalous; the characters are deliciously scheming; and the bargain basement copy I purchased came in English -- with English subtitles -- the only convincing proof I have that it was made in China.
The story is set in France in the late seventeen hundreds before the revolution. The upper crust of society has become decadent and depraved: in a society where bloodlines and marriage determine fate, sex and love take on the trappings of mortal combat. The opening sequence presents Marquise de Merteuil (Close) and Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) in their separate palaces dressing for the day. With a small army of attendants fussing over them they seem like gladiators preparing to take the field.
Valmont calls on Merteuil. She has a heroic enterprise for him. Her former husband, Bastide, intends to marry a girl fresh from the convent, Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). Merteuil would have Valmont seduce the girl, introduce her to the arts of the boudoir, and make Bastide the laughing stock of Paris. But it’s all too easy for Valmont -- any number of men could accomplish the task. No, he has a higher calling. His aunt has a young friend visiting at her chateau in the country, Madame de Tourvel (Pfeiffer) – a married woman famous for her beauty, religiosity, and virtue. He intends to seduce Tourvel even as she clings to her beliefs – she won’t be able to stop herself. It will be his greatest triumph.
She’s never been the object of such aggression. Watching Malkovich’ Valmont size up his quarry, rush in to do battle, retire, reconnoiter and venture into the fray again reminds one of fencing. Tourvel is beside herself – every wretched detail she’s heard about him is true. He must leave this place or she will be forced to leave herself. He demands to know which of her friends has tainted his name. She refuses of course. But with bribery and treachery he learns Madame Volanges is the culprit.
Valmont returns to Paris briefly to visit Merteuil. She informs him Danceny has proved a flop. Valmont is willing and able to aid in the seduction of Cecile Volanges – she and her mother are also visiting his aunt as it happens. He descends on the pleasant scene like a fox on a henhouse. He procures a room key from Cecile in order to safely deliver Danceny’s love letters, away from the prying eyes of mother. He uses the key to come to Cecile in the dead of night and have his way with her – against his forceful charms she’s defenseless.
Tourvel proves a harder nut to crack – just as he has the lady on the threshold he stops himself. He feels something for her. When Merteuil hears of this she upbraids him, he’s not the man he once was. Valmont succeeds with his next visit to Tourvel, but now he’s fallen in love. As he describes his conquest to Merteuil her jealousy rises. Valmont has come to claim his reward, but Merteuil is incensed – she pushes their story to the breaking point, the erstwhile allies become adversaries – it is total war.
The novel was considered so illicit Marie Antoinette had a copy brought to her in a blank cover, without title or the author’s name: (Choderlos de Laclos – a career soldier who fought under Napoleon.) Christopher Hampton wrote the play based on the book and he won the Oscar for his screenplay. There is something timeless about the story, the characters: ‘Cruel Intentions’ was based on it. We will see it again and again in different guises; but for three titans of the screen and their mesmerizing chemistry -- you will search long and fruitlessly for a better one than this. It was nominated for Best Picture – if only Tourvel had reformed Valmont and taken him off to America with her savant brother, Raymond...