Film Review: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

“You are a genuinely wicked woman”

Full disclaimer – Dangerous Liaisons has been one of my favourite films since the first time I saw it as an impressionable teenager and ran to Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel, which soon became a fast favourite too. Director Stephen Frears took Christopher Hampton’s screenplay of his own theatrical adaptation, planted it sumptuous locations in the Île-de-France and created something magisterial and malevolently brillant, and just as seductively sexual as I ever remembered.

Loving the film so much had its own knock-on impact to being a tad disappointed with the Donmar’s recent revival of the play – the first time I had seen it onstage – but only because it didn’t live up to the extent of my imaginings. And going back to the film (which I haven’t actually watched for a while), it was pleasing that it had lost nothing of its power, remaining Machiavellian and moving and featuring career-best performances from so many of its cast, especially Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

As the duelling Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, their games of power and control, with a healthy side-swerving of lust, just crackle off the screen as protected by the veneer of upper-class privilege, they toy mercilessly with those around them for the simple sport of it. But their markers of success diverge when a particular challenge becomes more personal than either expects, leading to a denouement of long-reaching sabotage and no little cruelty.

Malkovich has rarely been this restrained, and thus effective, as Valmont, the libertine who actually longs to love but realises too late how ensnared in the web of his co-conspirator he is. And as the manipulator-in-chief, Close more than earns the Academy Award nomination she received, with an arsenal of knowing looks and glances than lurk beneath the respectable surface, hinting at the true darkness beneath, a coldness that has been necessary for her to cultivate to survive as a person on her own terms in a society that reeks of hypocrisy.

As their victims, there’s strong work from Michelle Pfeiffer’s pure Madame de Tourvel, Uma Thurman’s Cécile de Volanges and even Keanu Reeves as her would-be lover the Chevalier Danceny, all pawns on the chessboard they don’t even realise they’re on. It’s also amusing to see a youthful Peter Capaldi as Valmont’s frisky man.

Frears makes great use of location and costume (James Acheson) to point up the constructed artifice of their lives and with cinematographer Philippe Rousselot makes great use of mirrors to reflect the importance of appearance, something reinforced by the extraordinarily powerful double-punch of an ending. Still one of my all-time favourite films.

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