Saturday 23 November 2019

Movie Review: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

A costume drama set in the haughty world of the ridiculously wealthy, Dangerous Liaisons is a visually gorgeous story of immoral activity fueling gender wars among the idle rich.

It's pre-revolution Paris in the late 1700s, and Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) is a rich and conniving widow who gets her pleasure by manipulating others. She attempts to convince notorious seducer Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) to sleep with her young and innocent niece Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), a covenant-educated virgin, as revenge against Isabelle's former lover Bastide, who abandoned Isabelle and is now set to marry Cécile.

Vicomte refuses, as he is focused on enhancing his reputation by seducing Madame Marie de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a married woman with morals beyond reproach. Isabelle is impressed with the bravado of his quest, and promises to sleep with Vicomte if he succeeds in corrupting Marie and provides a written letter as proof. But Vicomte's pursuit of Marie is compromised by the gossipy Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), Isabelle's cousin and Cécile's mother. As revenge, a furious Vicomte agrees to deflower Cécile and redoubles his efforts to have Marie fall in love with him.

As an incendiary exposé to support peasant revolutions, Dangerous Liaisons serves its purpose. The adaptation of Christopher Hampton's play, based on the Pierre Choderlos de Laclos book, is singularly obsessed with vindictive and lustful elites, idle and libidinous women and men with no better purpose than to plot sexcapades. Hampton's script is brought to life by director Stephen Frears in a lavish production, and the stellar cast shines amidst ostentatious costumes, cleavage and castles.

While none of the principal characters are remotely likeable, the dialogue exchanges between Isabelle and Vicomte reveal two sides of one coin, a female and male version of the same surreptitious behaviour trading in sex and deploying bribery, blackmail and subterfuge as needed. Vicomte can flaunt his reputation and indeed publicly work to enhance it, while by nature of women's social stature Isabelle is more discreet. She works by influencing others and nudging them towards ruin. At her most vulnerable moment Cécile turns to Isabelle for advice, and the aunt encourages her niece to embrace rape as a learning experience and seek multiple lovers.

Despite the seemingly frivolous attitude towards seduction, the film steers towards unexpected love intruding on intrigue. Vicomte can only break through Marie's barriers by falling in love with her, a condition he labels temporary, but Isabelle knows better. And Isabelle herself is sideswiped by intense jealousy, her facade penetrated upon learning another woman can emotionally preoccupy her man. The outcomes are well deserved, as Frears revels in moving his two protagonists towards emotional troughs of their own making.

Glenn Close occupies the centre of chicanery with an impressive performance, her sly smiles, pregnant pauses and sideways glances riding the line between outward social respectability and continuous conspiring. She is matched by John Malkovich riding through the field of conquests on nothing but unshakeable confidence in his seductive powers.

Although the scenes of verbal sparring between Marie and Vicomte are unconvincing and repetitive, Michelle Pfeiffer is surprisingly affecting as prey, while Uma Thurman is a doe eyed victim. In addition to Kurtz, Keanu Reeves as a naive artist caught up in the sex plots and Mildred Natwick as Vicomte's aunt round out the cast.

Dangerous Liaisons is an irresistible study of virtue making way for subversion, with predictably calamitous consequences.

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