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Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 film directed by Stephen Frears. It is based upon a play by Christopher Hampton which, by its turn, is based on the classic eighteenth-century novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Dangerous Liaisons was Frears' first production in the United States, and his eighth feature film. With seven Academy Award nominations, it was considered at the time a very successful Hollywood debut.
The film features widely acclaimed performances from Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in the roles of the three major characters from Laclos' novel, the Marquise de Merteuil, the Vicomte de Valmont and Madame de Tourvel, respectively; Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman and Swoosie Kurtz also star in supporting roles.
The movie was entirely shot on location in historical buildings of the French regions of Île-de-France and Picardie such as, among others, the famous Château de Vincennes. It was co-produced by Christopher Hampton, who also wrote the screenplay based on his own adaptation of Laclos' novel for the stage.
The film, whose characters speak American English, strives for an authentic French sensibility: conversations are hushed, almost whispered, in an effort to evoke the grace and reserve of eighteenth-century nobility.
Dangerous Liaisons was nominated in 1989 for seven Academy Awards:
- Best Picture
- Best Original Score (George Fenton)
- Best Actress in a Leading Role (Glenn Close)
- Best Actress in a Supporting Role (Michelle Pfeiffer)
- Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton)
- Best Costume Design (James Acheson )
- Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig , Gérard James ).
It won the last three. At the time, the fact that neither Frears nor Malkovich were nominated led to a few critical remarks in specialized magazines, particularly in the case of the latter, whose performance as Valmont was considered a masterpiece in the history of literary characters portrayed in movies.
The film won two out of ten BAFTA Awards nominations, for Pfeiffer and Hampton. The writer was also awarded by the London Critics Circle and the Writers Guild of America. Philippe Rousselot's cinematography was nominated by the American and by the British Society of Cinematographers, losing both awards.
The Marquise the Merteuil calls on her partner, the Vicomte de Valmont, to seduce the young daughter of one of her friends, Madame de Volanges, thus having revenge on a former lover, the man young Cecile is promised in marriage to. At first, Valmont refuses her proposition: he wants to seduce the prudish Madame de Tourvel, who is spending time at his aunt's house while her husband is abroad.
Upon discovering that Madame de Volanges had been secretely writing to Madame de Tourvel to warn her against his evil nature, Valmont changes his mind and decides to follow Merteuil's scheme. They take advantage of the fact that young Cecile is in love with her music teacher, the Chevalier Danceny, who does not qualify in the eyes of her mother as a potential suitor.
At his aunt's, Valmont easily seduces Cecile, while steadily targeting his main prey. Madame de Tourvel eventually gives in.
The Marquise had promissed the Vicomte a night in her company should he be successful. Nevertheless, she refuses to grant him his prize unless he breaks off with Tourvel completely, threatening to spoil his reputation as a debaucher. Valmont heeds to her request and leaves Tourvel, who thus becomes fatally ill.
Valmont goes back to Merteuil, who in the meantime had taken Danceny as lover, and demands the immediate fulfillment of her promisse. The Marquise refuses, and they declare war.
The Marquise reveals to Danceny that Valmont had seduced Cecile. The Chevalier and the Vicomte duel, and the latter is severely wounded. Before he dies, he asks his rival to visit Tourvel and assure her of his love, and hands him a collection of letters from Merteuil.
After hearing Valmont's message from Danceny, Madame de Tourvel expires. The Chevalier publishes Merteuil's letters, and the Marquise is booed by the audience at the opera.
Les Liaisons dangereuses is an epistolary novel, i.e., a novel that is entirely composed of letters. Through the messages sent by its characters, the reader is informed not only of events and situations, but also of Valmont's and Merteuil's innermost thoughts and wishes. This may pose a few problems for stage adapting, since a large portion of the original material consists not of action, but of perceptions and feelings.
Hampton's play and screenplay follow the plot of the novel very closely, and are generally considered prime adaptations of Laclos' work. One remarkable difference lies in the fact that the film somewhat softens the final fate of the Marquise de Merteuil. In the book, she contracts a very painful disease and looses one eye after her letters to Valmont have been published. In the movie, she is ostracized by her peers at the opera, but her ultimate destiny is left undetermined.
It has been argued that the dynamics required by stage and film action have rendered the vilains less capable of drawing the sympathy of the audience, since their inner motivations are not as clearly depicted as they are in their letters. Although still a very cruel person in the book, Valmont, for instance, is supposed to show a rather more violent nature in the movie.
The Opening Scene: The opening scene shows Merteuil's and Valmont's boudoir arrangements for aristocratic social life. After an ordeal of corsets, wigs, laces, drapes and hair spraying, the protagonists admire their images in the mirror. Glenn Close and John Malkovich look directly into the camera: this smart editing hints at the notion that the Marquise and the Vicomte are both reflections of each other.
Merteuil's Cynicism: Discovering the correspondence between her daughter and the Chevalier Danceny, Madame de Volanges writes her friend the Marquise asking her to come and talk with Celile so as to "prevent the worse". In fact, Merteuil had played an active part in bringing the two lovers together. This scene shows Merteuil as she drops from her carriage for the rescuing visit: Frears' camera catches Glenn Close's cynical smile below her hat just before she explodes in an outburst of faked sympathy towards Volanges' motherly concerns.
The Downfall of Aristocracy: In the last sequence, Merteuil silently removes her makeup after being booed out of the opera. The image fades out with Glenn Close still working at her face, dropping a couple of tears from time to time. This scene is a reverse of the opening scene: in both the Marquise looks in the mirror, but her reactions to what she sees are exactly the opposite. The sequence is usually taken to be a representation of public exposure: the Marquise's evil nature had been revealed through her letters, forcing her thus to "remove the mask". It is also interpreted as a symbol of the imminent downfall of aristocracy and of the Ancient Regime, since the novel takes place shortly before the French Revolution.
Just one year after Dangeous Liaisons, Milos Forman vision of Laclos' novel was also released. Valmont had a screenplay by French writer and critic Jean-Claude Carrière and starred Annette Benning and Colin Firth in the leading roles.
In 1999, Roger Kumble directed a more modern adaptation of the novel, released under the title Cruel Intentions. Curiously enough, Swoosie Kurtz, who played Madame de Volanges in Frears' movie, is also starring in this version.
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