What’s great about “Dangerous Liaisons” is that it knows just how soapy and ridiculous this all is. It’s set in stuffy, aristocratic France, but everything about this story is sex, love and revenge all the time. It’s absurd, but here, it works.
I saw an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s play of the same name (he’s also the screenwriter) and think it’s a lot better as a film. The play is all talk and gossip. It’s bogged down under names and archaic language. The elaborate web of steamy fucking becomes impossible to follow in that setting. Here however, Frears’s cross cutting does the story wonders. He jumps from bed to bed, drawing room to drawing room and keeps the many liaisons, dangerous or not, in check.
It’s still hard to juggle and keep straight. The Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) wants to break up the arranged marriage of the young convent girl Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), so she enlists a former lover of hers, the womanizing, snively and vain Vicomte Sebastian de Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce her. But Vico is such a naturally immoral charmer that he feels the job is too easy. In addition, he aims to win over the love the married, chaste and virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), and in exchange, the Marquise will allow him to share her bed.
It’s all sex talk, but every character in “Dangerous Liaisons” treats it with a political or social gravitas. Everything is said in sadistic whispers, and the film’s lush sets are all bathed in muted colors to match the film’s tone. Both the Marquise and the Vicomte are intensely immoral and deceptive, priding themselves embracing their current partner’s complete surrender to them and so in love with one another that they can do nothing but destroy each other.
Thankfully, Malkovich and Close are terrifically theatrical and melodramatic. Unlike “The Age of Innocence,” an American period drama that also starred Michelle Pfeiffer, these characters wear their emotions and their dark underbelly on their sleeves. They have a way of giving the camera a number of glaring, smirking close-ups and looking absolutely giddy while doing it.
What’s also fun about the movie is how ridiculous it gets. Vico’s biggest trick in the movie is convincing Cecile to leave him a spare bedroom key, which he then uses to enter her room and rape her on a regular basis. But when Cecile confides in the Marquise, she practically encourages Cecile to be slutty and have fun while she’s raped. Learn a thing or two about sex from such an awful experience, and take that energy (or disease) back to the guy you really love. But that’s not even the worst! Vico then says to Cecile how in the past her mother was essentially the Village Bicycle, and he knows, because he got a ride too. Amazingly, her response is not, “Eww, you had sex with my mom?”