Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Review: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)


Glenn Close - Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil
John Malkovich - Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont
Michelle Pfeiffer - Madame de Tourvel
Swoosie Kurtz - Madame de Volanges
Uma Thurman - Cécile de Volanges
Keanu Reeves - Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny

Directed by Stephen Frears.
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his own play of the same name (1985), which in turn is based on the epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos.
Colour. 119 min.

Interview with Glenn Close
Interview with John Malkovich
Interview with Uma Thurman


At first glance the story of this movie looks like something much too inane to base anything substantial on it. It revolves entirely around seduction and gossip, thus being more suitable to a teenage comedy rather than to a historical drama set in France from the XVIII century. (Indeed, later it did become a teen comedy: Cruel Intentions (1999); but that's another story). Yet the movie is an absolute classic that cannot be recommended highly enough to anybody who still cares for great acting and deep meaning on the screen.

The reasons for the undisputed, if a bit neglected, classical status of this movie are chiefly two: 1) the screenplay is much more than mere sexual intrigues; and 2) the cast is downright outstanding, especially the leading parts.


Spoilers ahead!

To begin with, the screenplay in the beginning is far from promising, busying itself – and yourself too – with petty games of people who have much too much time (and money) on their hands. Yet somewhere in the middle you start having some kind of foreboding. It is well justified. For the movie develops from an innocent social comedy into a dark drama of frightening intensity. This is no period piece, that's for sure. The main theme is the complex relationship between lust and love, with a good deal of vanity and social duplicity to keep them company – conundrums as relevant today as they ever were, or ever will be.


For all their cunning duplicity and social hypocrisy, both Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil, deep inside themselves, long for the same things as more or less anybody, then and now: love, affection, companionship, understanding. Both the Vicomte and the Marquise, however, have far too intelligent and sophisticated minds not to realise that lust and passion neither last nor bring lasting satisfaction. They know how hard it is to be a lone wolf. They know all too well that even great physical intimacy may well coexist with complete spiritual aloofness. And there is nothing sadder than that.

John Malkovich and Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons
Even though the supporting cast includes fine performances by Michelle Pfeiffer (the paragon of virtue), Uma Thurman (the reluctant virgin), Keanu Reeves (the idealistic music teacher) and Swoosie Kurtz (the ''virtuous'' mother), all these worthies are completely overshadowed by Glenn Close and John Malkovich as the Marquiese and the Vicomte, respectively. Neither of them may at first strike you as the right choice for a great seducer, of either sex, but both of them (considerably helped by the great script and genius for acting) make terrific roles that remind me that the secret of seduction is in the provocative behaviour, not in the gorgeous looks.

The Valmont-Merteuil scenes are unforgettable, full of double entendres and refreshing frankness delivered with a deliciously elaborate vocabulary. No less suave are the innuendos they devise and carry out with the destinies of the other characters. Yet one is never in any doubt that behind the glittering façade there are ruthless calculation and genuine malice quite devoid of any scruples whatsoever. What adds a welcome touch of poignancy is that there is solid ground for the best possible relationship, that is the one that combines carnal knowledge with intellectual satisfaction, to exist between the Marquise and Valmont. Yet it is ruined by our good, old – and, alas, eternal – friends such as vanity, pride and envy. Significantly, both have ''solo scenes'' in the very end of the movie – the duel (with a great dying speech by John Malkovich) and the public ostracizing (deeply moving performance by Glenn Close without a single word) – and these are among the most affecting moments in the whole movie. The most dramatic is perhaps the "declaration of war":


For my part, I did not in the least find the main characters too cold or impossible to sympathise with, as other reviewers apparently did. Quite to the contrary, and that's what makes this movie truly great: it compels you to contemplate the infinite complexity of human nature. The icy coldness, which is of course essential for their characters, is finely balanced by sorrows and torments common to all of us. In the end, for all their appalling selfishness and cruelty, I was sorry for the Marquise who lived to see her whole world destroyed beyond repair. And I definitely found the Vicomte very likeable, even compelling, especially considering his longing for something he had never experienced before: a true love, a union of souls and bodies entirely devoid of any self-interest. That must be something.


Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons 
In conclusion, this is superb movie exploring the eternal war between the flesh and the spirit; if anything, it is more relevant today, in our supposedly free thinking but actually abominably loose times, than it was a few centuries ago. In addition to great script and some of the finest dialogue ever written for the screen, the movie boasts sumptuous historical sets and costumes, very nice soundtrack, the right dose of high comedy and, above all, stunning acting, particularly by Glenn Close and John Malkovich in the leading roles but also by Michelle Pfeiffer in the most important supporting one. Nobody who cares about cinema as a form of art should miss this movie. It is amusing, entertaining, harrowing and heart-breaking. It rewards re-watching.

P. S. It goes without saying that this movie is on a significantly higher plane than Cruel Intentions, but this is no reason to degrade the latter. It is made as a teen comedy by design and it is a very clever adaptation of a story which was originally much more a film noir than a comedy. Besides, Cruel Intentions does not in the least lack some substance, though admittedly of a lighter kind than the one in Dangerous Liaisons.

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