Saturday, August 23, 2008

Target #230: Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Stephen Frears)

TSPDT placing: #910
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Choderlos de Laclos (novel), Christopher Hampton (play) (screenplay)
Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman, Mildred Natwick

That Dangerous Liaisons (1988) was adapted from a 1782 novel – "Les Liaisons dangereuses," by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos – is something I find remarkable. The story is basically about sex and seduction, and the cruelty with which people conspire to corrupt innocence and virtue for their own perverse pleasure. Immeasurably scandalous at the time of its publication, and remaining so for centuries, the novel has lent itself to various stage and screen adaptations, though Stephen Frears' 1988 film was the first English-language film version, perhaps green-lighted after Amadeus (1984) revived the costume drama sub-genre {Milos Forman would direct his own version of the novel, Valmont (1989), the following year}. Such lively subject matter proves more than enough to brighten up the typical ceremonial dreariness of the period piece, and, indeed, the film feels more modern than most modern-day explorations of sexual behaviour. The eighteenth century, in which we imagine most proud aristocrats to be prudish and formal in their romances, is revealed to possess an undercurrent of depravity, a wicked streak that characterises human interaction.

Glenn Close is deliciously fiendish as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, a woman who has all but perfected the ability to control every man around her through seduction and betrayal. Her male counterpart, Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (John Malkovich), expends his life in similar pursuits, every woman whom he corrupts serving as a trophy to his reputation as a scamp. As a means of revenge, Merteuil asks Valmont for a favour – to deflower the young, convent-educated wife (Uma Thurman) of a former lover. Valmont initially dismisses this assignment as being too easy, instead setting his sights on Madame Marie de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a beautiful woman known for her virtue and steadfast morals. It's all too apparent that Merteuil and Valmont are in love with each other, and, indeed, had once shared a relationship. However, their passion is doomed from the outset, for to surrender to their desires would be to allow their rival to declare victory over them; their stubborn pride ensures their inevitable downfall.

Dangerous Liaisons might have faltered had the performances been inadequate, but nearly every cast member delivers strongly, with only Keanu Reeves seeming anachronistically out-of-place in the eighteenth-century French setting. Glenn Close is superbly devilish as the manipulative and superior Merteuil, whose every spoken word is clearly distinguished from its intended meaning, veiled behind a attitude of smug satisfaction. John Malkovich was never the most handsome man in Hollywood, but he uses his words as a weapon, measuring each syllable with flawless elocution and emphasis, every remark assuredly drawing him closer to his victim's bed. Keanu Reeves, in his earliest success, seems completely out-of-his-depth in such a formal upper-class setting, though this does work positively in terms of his character, who is similarly disoriented amid all the treachery. Michelle Pfeiffer, looking very pretty, is wonderful as Valmont's prized quarry, slowing succumbing to his sleazy charms. Her beauty becomes even more heartbreaking when we realise that we, the audience, are eagerly anticipating her seduction and corruption by Valmont's hand, and immediately feel shamed by our complicity.

Currently my #5 film of 1988:
1) Who Framed Roger Rabbit (Robert Zemeckis)
2) Nuovo cinema Paradiso {Cinema Paradiso} (Giuseppe Tornatore)
3) Rain Man (Barry Levinson)
4) Die Hard (John McTiernan)
5) Dangerous Liaisons (Stephen Frears)

What others have said:

"Stephen Frears skillfully presents the cruel and heartless ways in which the two malevolent protagonists manipulate their targets and deceive others around them... It is chilling to watch Valmont use his imagination to bring down Madame de Tourvel, who wrestles unsuccessfully with her conscience before submitting to him. Dangerous Liaisons has a contemporary resonance with its sharp-edged portrait of the battle of the sexes, its depiction of how boredom can corrupt, and its view of amorality as a destructive force in human relationships."

"If there is anything lacking in the movie, it may be a certain gusto. The director, Stephen Frears, is so happy to make this a tragicomedy of manners that he sometimes turns away from obvious payoffs. I am not suggesting he should have turned the material toward the ribald, or gone for easy laughs, but there are times when he holds back and should have gone for the punch line. Dangerous Liaisons is an absorbing and seductive movie, but not a compelling one."

"Director Stephen Frears accelerates entertainingly through Christopher Hampton's wig-and-powder sado-comedy about sexual mind games in 18th-century France. Like his fellow countryman Richard Lester, Frears values snappy editing, a whimsical mood and a freewheeling camera.... John Malkovich's lead performance digs in its heels, deadening the movie's speedy exhilaration. The result is a highly diverting but ultimately unsatisfying production that doesn't perform -- so much as paraphrase -- the script."

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