“Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, & Michelle Pfeiffer

Vicomte de Valmont: I often wonder how you manage to invent yourself.

Marquise de Merteuil: Well, I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So, of course, I had to invent, not only myself, but ways of escape no one has every thought of before. And I’ve succeeded because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.

The novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos was first published in 1782; it was considered so scandalous that when Queen Marie Antoinette commissioned a copy, she had to have it bound in a blank cover. Many of you may already know the plot of the story; it came out just before the French Revolution. In late 18th c. France, the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich in his star-making role) play a dangerous game of seduction. Valmont is someone who measures success by his female conquests. Merteuil challenges him to seduce the young/virginal, Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman in one of her early roles), and provide proof in writing of his success. Cecile is engaged to the man who broke up w/ Merteuil (the first one to do so, allegedly). Valmont’s reward will be to spend one night w/ Merteuil; they were once lovers years back. Valmont wants to seduce the happily-married/devout Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is staying w/ his elderly aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Mildred Natwick in her final role). It turns out that Valmont falls in love w/ Tourvel!

Valmont: You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s is most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought “betrayal” was your favorite word.

Merteuil: No, no…”cruelty.” I always think that has a nobler ring to it

I watched this movie many years ago; I didn’t recall a lot of the details. I re-watched it recently and was blown away- this is must-see for any film fan! You don’t have to be a big fan of period pieces or costume dramas; the funny/clever dialogue will pull you in. As some viewers noted, almost every line has a double entendre; I recommend seeing it twice to take it all in. In the opening, we see the two leads getting dressed in fine clothes and made-up (powdered faces; wigs) by several servants. To save money, some of the costumes were created from sari material- how cool!

Merteuil: One of the reasons I never re-married, despite a bewildering range of offers, was the determination NEVER AGAIN to be ordered about.

Dangerous Liaisons opened in theaters in 1988, a year before Valmont (1989) starring Annette Bening and Colin Firth. According to screenwriter Christopher Hampton, the director of Valmont- Milos Forman- attended several performances of the play in London, then decided to film his own version. Hampton offered to have dinner w/ Forman to discuss the project, but the director never showed up. The competing film convinced the studio, Lorimar, to rush this movie into production, in order to beat Valmont into theaters. Dangerous Liaisons won 3 Oscars, was a critical success, and had moderate box office success. Bening auditioned for the role of Merteuil in this movie also. Pfeiffer was offered the role of Merteuil in Valmont. Alan Rickman made the role of Valmont famous in London and on Broadway. Since the producers wanted to cast a more established actor in the role, Rickman wasn’t considered.

The movie should appeal to everyone. It’s sleazy, elegant, vicious and mean, and it’s about people doing hideous things to each other. If that weren’t enough, it has a tragic end. What more could people ask for? -Malkovich in a 1988 interview

Malkovich (in his first romantic role) shows that men like Valmont get by w/ wit, charm, and style (not physical beauty). In some of the (dimly lit) scenes w/ the long/brown wig, he looks esp. intense and a bit mysterious. There are little character moments where he smirks or does something w/ his body langauge, showing the audience that Valmont is having fun (just like us). Some viewers preferred Firth as Valmont, perhaps b/c he was more handsome and light-hearted. Thurman (only 17 y.o. and standing at 6′ tall) isn’t intimidated to go toe-to-toe w/ much older/experienced actors. I finally realized that Cecile’s mother, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), has a dislike for Valmont b/c they were once lovers (whoa)! Not even the (wooden) acting of a young Keanu Reeves can detract from the viewer enjoying this movie. Some viewers said that he’s supposed to be naive; luckily, he doesn’t have much to do. Fans of Doctor Who will get a kick out of Peter Capaldi (30 y.o.) as Valmont’s loyal servant Azolan; he uses his Scottish accent. The 5 American actors speak using their natural accents; this is rare for a period film.

We filmed in France and I had given birth to Annie 7 weeks before we started preparing for the film. For the first time in my life, I had these great breasts. It’ll never happen again, but for one brief, shining season, I had the most incredible breasts. James Acheson, the costume designer… …I just loved it because they pushed my breasts up and made me have cleavage. I guess I should be saying something more intellectual about the film, but I just remembered how great it felt to have those breasts. -Close in a 1996 interview

It was tough for me to decide, but Close (then 41 y.o.) was the most fascinating of the characters. Close (who didn’t appear in the movies until she was already 35 y.o.) and Malkovich (who comes from the theater like Close) make a strong duo; they have fantastic chemistry together. Close came up w/ her character’s final scene- wow! Director Stephen Frears gave her the line: “her soul was on her face,” Close thought for a minute and stated: “I know how to show that.” The score (which flows perfectly w/ the story) was composed by George Fenton; we also hear the music of Bach, Handel, and Vivaldi. I think the music will really carry the viewer away! Speaking of which, I learned that Malkovich (35 y.o.) and Pfeiffer (30 y.o.) had an affair during the filming; his wife (actress Glenne Headley) filed for divorce soonafter.

[1] The first thing that strikes you is how well the film is lit and shot. The period locations and costumes are visually sumptuous and perfect. Better yet, the acting entirely matches the skill of the direction that takes its method from the theatre – emotions are conveyed by expression and not dialogue. Glenn Close gives her best performance on celluloid as the scheming Madame de Merteuil, amorally hellbent on bending everyone to her will, no matter the method or the cost, and John Malkovitch is her perfect foil as the cynical hedonistic but world-weary Valmont. Michelle Pfeiffer engages our empathy as the tortured and manipulated target of Malkovitch’s desire and Close’s plotting.

[2] Stephen Frears, in his American film debut, creates a lush visage of restrained yet swooning passions, icy stares, and hushed, measured speeches against the backdrop of the Ile-de-France…

The dark comedy that pins two bored aristocrats against each other as they play God with other people’s lives without realizing the devastating consequences that will result from this has been the stuff of legend and allure. Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer all are beyond awards in their exacting and multidimensional portrayals of three very different people caught in a web of deceit. However the star of this adaptation has to be Christopher Hampton who immortalizes Laclos’ vision in a subtle, yet powerful story filled with subtext and restrained cruelty.

-Excerpts from IMDB reviews

3 thoughts on ““Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, & Michelle Pfeiffer

  1. This is an excellent film. I saw it in México the summer after it came out, and then we watched it in a university course on the Enlightenment. (You’re right, even Keanu Reeves couldn’t ruin it.) It’s too bad they didn’t consider Rickman, although Malkovich is certainly okay in the role.

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    • Well, doing this role in London, Rickman impressed some filmmakers who wanted an unique villain for their new movie- “Die Hard.” He had such a deep/distinctive voice; I also assume he would’ve been good in this movie.

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      • Yes — had this film happened a few years later he would have been right there. (I saw “Die Hard” in the cinema when it came out and it made a big impression on me.) It’s a mild regret of mine to have passed up the change to see him in the theater in 2012 in NYC.

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