Historically, among the French aristocracy, love and marriage did not go together. Marriages were made because of wealth, status, etc. Of course, there was a lot of heartache, cheating, and even… disaster. In such a world, marriage was a burden to be tolerated; lovers/mistresses were common.
At the opening, “innocent,” wide-eyed 15 y.o. Cecile de Volanges (Fairuza Balk) leaves the convent where she’s been studying/living since age 11. Her mother has already arranged a marriage for her with a wealthy older man, Monseur de Gercourt (Jeffrey Jones). It turns out that Cecile’s fiance is the (current) lover of Madame de Merteuil (Annette Bening), her mother’s “wise,” beautiful, and widowed cousin. No one notices that Cecile’s young music tutor, Danceny (Henry Thomas, the little boy from E.T.) is interested in her, too.
At the Paris opera, they meet a former lover of Merteuil’s, Monseur de Valmont (a young Colin Firth). He invites Merteuil to his aunt’s place. Valmont goes to the country, as he knows that the lovely/naive young wife of a judge is visiting, Madame de Tourvel (Jennifer Tilly).
Valmont boldly decalres his love for her, but she says that she’ll stay true to her husband. Wives who cheat are “weak” in her mind. (Watch for a funny pond scene that is quite different from the one in Pride & Prejudice.)
When Merteuil comes to the estate, she proposes a cruel plan: she wants Valmont to seduce Cecile before her wedding night, as revenge against Gercourt. The idea bores him, at first, but then she says that he can have her if the plan succeeds.
Cecile’s mother is angry/upset when she learns that her daughter has been receiving love letters from Danceny. The girl confesses all to Merteuil- she loves Danceny and hates the thought of marrying the “old and ugly” Gercourt. Merteuil double crosses Cecile and tells the mother. The young lovers are separated, but Merteuil promises to help them be together. That’s when the real drama begins!
The leads in this film are much more appealing/younger, and thus better suited, to their roles than Glenn Close and John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons, a fine film (I loved Michelle Pfeiffer’s interpretation). You don’t want to miss the sizzling chemistry between Bening and Firth, as Roger Ebert pointed out in his review. They are just fun to watch! (This is my third time watching this film. My mom likes it too, though the some of the characters are “very naughty.”)