Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Dangerous Liaisons: Theme with Variations

The "theme", of course, is the epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos first published in 1782. The "variations" are four movie adaptations that could not have been more different. But first a few words about the literary original, because, reportedly, it has had an enormous influence and is still relatively widely read, no matter that the vogue of the epistolary novel, not to mention the high-flown language, has long become history.

Spoilers ahead.

A 1976 Bulgarian translation of the novel,
coupled with Manon Lescaut by Abbe Prevost
I admit this is the only epistolary novel I have read so far. I really didn't know what to expect, but I was rather pleasantly surprised to find something very readable and highly entertaining. Certainly, it is far from perfect. It is often long-winded and verbose, partly due to the peculiar form and partly due to those leisurely times when conversation and letter writing were carefully cultivated forms of art. It is very difficult, I imagine, to tell convincingly a story only through letters without now and then slipping into somewhat excessive detail. Another thing one has to be patient with is the elaborate formality of the style. I suppose it was typical for the eighteenth century, but today the vast and florid vocabulary that fills those wordy and oh, so long sentences does tend to become tedious.

On the whole, however, the novel is a spectacular achievement of story-telling and characterisation. Granted for some superfluous or tedious pages, it is compelling from start to finish. Most of the post-reading complaints one may have are usually reduced to minor quibbles while reading. Somehow Laclos not just transports you into another and greatly different times, but he makes you care for his characters, no matter how cruel and malicious they may look at first glance. What more can you ask of fiction?

One drawback I was prepared for, but which never materialised, was disjointed and incoherent plot. Not at all. There always are at least two separate trends going on, but there never are any sprawling digressions. In fact, the plot is very tightly organised, logical almost to the point of a mathematical equation, and entirely believable. It proceeds at a leisurely pace, to be sure, but it works inexorably towards a bold, audacious climax. Only towards the very end, after Valmont's death, is there some rushing and pushing. But this is to be expected. Without the Vicomte, the very existence of the Marquise makes no sense at all.

The epistolary form may be awkward and it may need some time to get used to, but it does have its own advantages as well. Telling the whole story with letters adds precious verisimilitude, variety and vividness. One cannot but admire Laclos for his nearly perfect ''keeping in character''. There are at least six persons who play critical roles in the story, and they all write remarkably different letters. The stylistic diversity is exhilarating; it keeps at bay the monotony that sooner or later settles in the correspondence even of the two wittiest human beings. Most of the time the illusion that you are the addressee is nearly perfect. This adds a special kind of intimacy not so often achieved in fiction. It draws you inside the minds of the characters with a vengeance.

When it comes to rococo decadence, naughty games of sexual innuendo with serious consequences, seduction and betrayal on the grand scale but in exquisite style, I don't think it would be easy to beat, to give its most popular English title, Dangerous Liaisons. What more can you ask of fiction, I repeat? Well, you are right to ask some timeless substance, some insight into the human condition that never quite becomes dated. You will find it here. Much of the novel is a high comedy, but don't be fooled by the glittering surface. Just below there is a good deal of relentless probing into the dark depths of human nature.

What I have to say about Dangerous Liaisons (1988) I have already said it somewhere else. Suffice it to stress here that this is by far the best adaptation among the four discussed here. It is the closest one to the novel in every way. The dialogue is fabulous and flawless, striking the perfect balance between light-hearted humour full of double entendres and intensely dramatic episodes that contain a fair share of profound observations about human nature. The sets and the costumes are sumptuous historical affairs that recreate France from second half of the eighteenth century with startling realism. Finally, it is difficult to imagine how Glenn Close and John Malkovich could be surpassed as the Marquise and the Vicomte, respectively. Both deliver stupendous performances.

Interestingly enough, this movie was not based on the novel itself but on a play of the same name adapted from the original by Christopher Hampton. He also wrote the screenplay, and if this is anything to go by, then his play, which opened in 1985 with Alan Rickman as Valmont, must definitely be worth checking out. Mr Hampton certainly knew his Laclos very well indeed. He has stripped away much of the verbiage, yet he has managed to preserve the complexity of the characters and intricacies of the plot virtually intact. It is only fair to say that he is one of main reasons why this movie is so outstanding. As we shall see right away, the art of adaptation, for it is an art, can easily let down an otherwise fine production.

Valmont (1989) does at first glance look terribly promising. There is a lot to recommend it. Annette Bening as the Marquise and Colin Firth as Valmont, lavish and historically accurate production design, a fine director like Milos Forman. Could it go wrong? Well, it certainly did. And I think the main reason is the script. I don't mind it is ''freely adapted'', as honestly admitted in the opening credits, but I am convinced that the final result is much, much weaker than the original. The characters have all but been reduced to caricatures, the dialogue has been clipped and simplified almost to the point of banality, some characters are superbly superfluous (Gercourt being the prime example), several elements of the plot are either unnecessarily expanded (the romance between Cecile and Danceny) or frustratingly left incomplete (Valmont's affair with Madame de Tourvel). In short, it's a mess.

Had it been released at some other time, that is before Dangerous Liaisons or at least several years after it, Valmont would have faired better. It does have some merit. Visually it is beautiful, often stunningly so, for example in the many night scenes where the dim light of candles creates a very special, almost surreal atmosphere, or in the splendid outdoor scenes most of which are literally breathtaking. The acting is generally superb, all the more so when one considers the indifferent dialogue, and there are several wonderfully effective original scenes (for instance, when the Marquise wrote a letter from Danceny's name).

But the movie did appear on the very next year after Dangerous Liaisons, thus inviting numerous comparisons none of which is in its favour. Just a couple of examples.

Despite strenuous efforts from the sweet Annette and the gorgeous Colin, a flippant Marquise who takes nothing seriously and a Valmont who is never tormented by his love for Madame de Tourvel are duds. Both come off as dull, glib and shallow creatures, very far removed from the subtle, intriguing and, most important of all, affecting characters in the other movie as well as in the novel. Meg Tilly as Madame de Tourvel and Fairuza Balk as Cecile are at best mediocre, although it is hard to say how much of this is due to their own incapacity and how much to the lame writing. The very few scenes which both movies share are embarrassing – for Valmont. The ''declaration of war'', often put on the DVD cover, is puerile stuff worthy of the inmates of a prep school. The ending is hilariously inept. What a contrast indeed! Just compare the ludicrous duel and the blatantly sentimental funeral here with the fight in which Valmont willingly sacrificed himself and the following destruction of Merteuil, and you will know how far Milos Forman and co. went into their misunderstanding of the original.

All in all, an interesting curiosity to spend 130 minutes of your time, especially if you like the novel and are curious about ''free adaptations''. But it's magnificently forgettable all the same. Of course if you prefer light and superficial comedy to tense drama that delves deep into the psychology of the human animal, you are perfectly right to like Valmont better than Dangerous Liaisons. I don't.

Les liaisons dangereuses (1959) transfers the story to France from the late 1950s. Actually there is not much left from the original plot. Merteuil and Valmont are husband and wife who allow themselves a degree of freedom that very few marital couples can match. Their chief diversion is playing dirty games at the expense of their friends. So far, so good. But the adaptation is again the chief problem here. Nearly all depth, drama and substance of the original have been eliminated, or rather substituted with a lacklustre and superficial characterisation. Even Gérard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau, both of whom deserve better material, cannot save so mediocre a script, much less the supporting cast (among whom there is the young Jean-Louis Trintignant as Danceny). Nor is the changed plot in any way more exciting or more convincing than the original one. It is less turgid than the slow-paced and rather confused Valmont, I'll grant that, but at times it is rushed and not making much sense.

Gérard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau
in 
Les liaisons dangereuses (1959)
The best about this movie is the direction of Roger Vadim. The man is a visual poet. Most of the story is set in a French ski resort and that gives him ample opportunity to use glorious snow vistas to a great effect. It is quite often that the imaginative and audacious direction saves the movie from being a total disappointment. For example, the opening scene contains some painfully blatant explanations about the marital arrangement between the protagonists: an unforgivable dramatic mistake in a movie where so much is, or should be, based on concealment. Yet the scene is so masterfully shot, with a meandering camera through an expensive party, that you are willing to forgive the screenwriter's total lack of subtlety and foresight. The erotic scenes are stylishly shot, and though prudish by modern standards, you can still appreciate the lovely curves of Annette Vadim (Marianne Tourvel) or the perfect legs of Jeanne Valérie (Cecile) from some unusual visual angles.

Taken on its own there is something sleek and cool about this French movie, a certain cynical charm that is quite captivating. But as an adaptation it is a nearly complete failure. Perhaps future viewings without the benefit of comparisons, if such a thing is possible, may yield better results. Perhaps not.

Cruel Intentions (1999) is the most radical, but also the most successful, departure from the original novel. The plot is ripped off and set in modern day New York among upper class teenagers whose favourite occupation for the summer holiday are sexual intrigues. This is fresh and stimulating. The movie is often disparaged because it dilutes the serious message of the original by bringing it down to high-school mentality. I think this is missing the point. Within its own limitations – and let it not be forgotten what cultural abyss lies between eighteenth-century Paris and twentieth-century New York – the movie succeeds to bring off both the comedy and the drama with a rather astonishing success. Heretical as this may sound, I do prefer it to either Valmont or Les liaisons dangereuses.

Oddly enough, this version is the second closest – in spirit and on a lower plane, of course! – to the original novel after the one from 1988. The opening credits do mention Laclos of course (with one timid ''suggested by''), but writer and director Roger Kumble must have benefited from Christopher Hampton's play as well. But this is, again, missing the point. The adaptation is a minor masterpiece, highly original and totally convincing. It is a peculiar kind of pleasure to observe the cleverness, the sheer genius even, employed to ''update'' the common scenes and characters to the utterly alien setting. The first meeting between Valmont and Cecile, in the presence of her mother and his sister, is a case in point. So is his introduction to the virtuous Annette (the equivalent of Madame de Tourvel) or the near-rape of Cecile. The ending is not quite up to the original one, but neither is it grossly sentimentalized; and it contains a funeral scene vastly superior to that in Valmont. The dialogue is marvellously smart, pointed and effective, sometimes almost salacious but never vulgar for vulgarity's sake. To complain it is less profound than Laclos and Hampton is absurd.

Likewise, complaints that Ryan Philippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar are no match for John Malkovich and Glenn Close, respectively, are pathetic. Of course they aren't. They are not meant to be, remember? That said, both are fantastic, not least in the steamy scenes between them. Both of them cover the whole range between farcical fun and cruel brutality with impressive skill. Reese Whiterspoon also gives a convincing, varied and moving performance as Annette, the virtuous subject of the bet. The supporting cast is top-notch, too. Selma Blair as the simple-minded (but not stupid!) Cecile, Christine Baranski as her preposterously snobbish mother, and especially Joshua Jackson as Blain Tuttle, the gay guy who helps Valmont (somewhat akin to Azolan in other versions), are all excellent.

Altogether this is a very fine movie, a serious comedy par excellence. Quite often it is unjustly underrated by silly folk who are prejudiced against teen movies or too keen on comparisons with Dangerous Liaisons. Speaking of comparisons, however, Cruel Intentions, despite its modern setting, is much truer to the spirit of the original, both in terms of plot and characters, than the historically spot-on Valmont. Strange but true. Give it a try. Teen movies can teach us truths, too. This one does.

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