Based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ famous epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, Stephen Frears’ 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons is undoubtedly one of the best costume dramas ever made. Whilst that may sound like an overstatement, it really isn’t. Every aspect of the film’s production is utter perfection, from Frears’ direction, to the performances of the cast, especially Malkovich and Close’s, and, of course, to the costumes.
After the French Revolution, Laclos’ novel has repeatedly been praised as a stinging denunciation of the Ancien Régime, which has been seen as one of the most unequal and decadent periods in European history due to its vast social inequalities. Whilst the period before the French Revolution was undoubtedly one of incredible suffering for the poor due to social, political and economic realities that entirely benefitted the First and Second Estate; it’s doubtful that Laclos was a social crusader who wanted to overthrow the monarchy and recreate France’s very social fabric from the hem up.
Laclos was born into an upper middle class family, attended the exclusive École royale d’artillerie de La Fère, was promoted to captain in the French Royal Army and enjoyed the patronage of Louis Philippe II , Duke of Orleans (who despite supporting the Revolution, was still part of the nobility, and cousin to Louis XVI, which led to his own eventual head-from-neck separation during the Reign of Terror).
Laclos’ motivation behind writing his masterpiece in social critique and pre-Revolution observations, was pretty clearly put by the author himself:
[to] write a work which departed from the ordinary, which made a noise, and which would remain on earth after [my] death…https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Choderlos_de_Laclos
So why is it that a novel that was written in 1782 and set in about 1760, about a class of people who definitely no longer exist in the form they inhabited at that time and in that place, has endured for two centuries? And how did it inspire a play that has won multiple awards and been revived several times, and a film that received seven Oscar nominations?
There are several reasons, but the most compelling I think, is that it’s a story about lust, revenge, betrayal, narcissism and the often disheartening truth about life: there is usually no happy ending, not even for the people who deserve it.
The 1988 film adaptation follows the plot of the novel fairly closely, with some minor changes. The vicious, two faced, Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glen Close) summons Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (John Malkovich) to her opulent home to inform him of her new plot: to ensure that her ex-lover, Comte de Bastide’s, bride to be, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) is deflowered by Valmont and therefore, not only dishonoured, but also the reason for Bastide being made a cuckold. Valmont is not interested, his desired prize is the virtuous and beautiful Madame Marie de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is staying with Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde (Mildred Natwick) on her country estate. He wants to not only seduce Tourvel, but also watch as an inner war between her virtue and desire rage. The Marquise’s distorted desire to gain pleasure from the “sport” of the suffering of other’s, as well as Valmont’s eventual emotional attachment to Tourvel and his epic fall due to his destructive pride, will have incredibly tragic consequences for everyone, especially the innocent.
I think the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil is one of the most repulsive and fascinating characters of literature and film. There is a part in the movie when she talks about making her social debut at the age of 15, and how she was immediately bored with the oppressive male centric world she found herself in. She explains how she cultivated her personality through careful research. She is her own greatest work. She is an absolute psychopath who cares nothing for the feelings and wellbeing of others. Whilst her characterisation through Christopher Hampton’s script is brilliant on its own, with its cutting dialogue, it is Glen Close’s realisation of Merteuil that is absolutely spellbinding. It is one of the best performances in film. Period. The closing shot of her removing her make up with increasing despair and violence as the light slowly fades, embeds itself in your brain. Even though there is recourse for her actions, as in her being permanently socially exiled and losing Valmont, her actions have claimed two lives and ruined many more.
Whilst John Malkovich has never been one of my favourite actors, he is incredible as Valmont (although it would’ve been very interesting to see Alan Rickman onscreen, as he originated the role on the West End). His slow, subtle transformation of Valmont through gestures and line delivery is something that I’ve only really come to appreciate after multiple viewings. I think his most compelling scenes in terms of sheer emotion with very little dialogue, is the duel scene which leads to his death. His face as he remembers his happiness with the only woman he has ever loved, and has now irrevocably destroyed, are incredibly heartbreaking. He also manages to make his death scene poignant instead of overly dramatic. Somehow, he makes Valmont redemptive towards the end, in spite of the terrible way he has treated people and his shared responsibility for the suffering of others due to his duplicity in Merteuil’s schemes. I think the fact that neither Close nor Malkovich won Oscar’s for this role further proves the skewed odds of that awards show.
There’s a sublime perversity in Frears’ casting, especially that of Malkovich… [he] brings a fascinating dimension to his character that would be missing with a more conventionally handsome leading man.Hal Hinson, The Washington Post
Michelle Pfeiffer’s role is, as The Washington Post also said:
Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it.
Whilst Madam de Tourvel could easily have been an incredibly pathetic, boring and uninteresting character in contrast to Merteuil and Valmont’s wickedness and devilishness, Pfeiffer makes her a woman for whom the audience feels immense sympathy. Valmont’s manipulation of her is incredibly frustrating and tragic, especially when he uses her faith to eventually ensure the realisation of a dangerous liaison. Merteuil gets the best lines (as well as the best costumes), but Tourvel is the one who you truly wish could have a happy ending. Not for one moment does she deserve what Valmont, and in turn what Merteuil, does to her. She never shuns anyone due to her own piety, and when she and Valmont begin their love affair, her true emotion leads to Valmont finally understanding what it feels like to actually have an emotional, as well as a physical, connection to someone.
Her slow, painful death due to intense despair, shame and the crude medical knowledge of the day, is brilliantly portrayed by Pfeiffer. When she asks for the curtains to be closed around her deathbed, I always feel a lump forming in my throat. The game has gone too far, and has resulted in an early, painful death. This is the price of breaking people and shattering their lives. Pfeiffer absolutely deserved her BAFTA award.
James Acheson’s costume design is one of the best I have ever seen. Abby Cox made an incredible video about the film’s costumes, and how they not only enhance the characters, but become characters of their own. According to Cox, Acheson chose to create costumes that were actually from the 1760s (thereby shifting the story earlier in the film than that of novel) in order to allow audiences to be able to visually identify and connect with the film more easily, thereby creating a visual short hand to reinforce characters, gender, social class and sexuality.
In Dangerous Liaisons, he didn’t want a languorous costume film. Instead, he wanted to concentrate on the actors and let the visual side take care of itself.James Acheson talking about Stephen Frears’ vision for Dangerous Liaisons.
Even to a
ignorant slob casual observer like yours truly, the fact that the costumes are meticulously designed is very much apparent. I love the fact that Close never covers her hair, unlike Madame de Tourvel and Madame de Volanges, both of whom are far more conservative in their dress than Marquise de Merteuil. And the sheer opulence of Close and Malkovich’s costumes are astounding considering the fact that the film was made in just over two months and on a very small (for a costume drama) budget. Acheson and his team were under extreme pressure due to the time and budget constraints, but in addition to these practical concerns, Acheson had just won the Oscar for The Last Emperor, and one of Liaison’s producers said that hoped Acheson would win for the latter film, too. Glen Close had also given birth six weeks before the film began shooting, and had to stand through nine hours of dress fittings.
Acheson’s attention to detail also extended to ensuring that the actresses wore undergarments that busted the myth of 18th century women’s dress being uncomfortable, and he also explained how this authenticity even under the costumes was necessary in order to ensure that the actresses moved in the way that women of that era would have.
The thing about all that structuring is that if it’s done properly, your body can relax into them. Your body learns to cope with that stricture, which governs the way you walk and sit and move.
The opening scene of the film is incredibly important in terms of laying the foundations for Malkovich and Close’s characters’ construction of an outward shell to trick and entice others. Dressing is not some throwaway exercise for them, each morning they follow an elaborate ritual that is not only incredibly complex and time consuming, but also reinforces the incredible decadence of their lifestyles.
As the film progresses, their attire undergoes important changes that reinforce their gradual estrangement from each other. Whilst Merteuil’s costumes become more and more elaborate, Valmont eventually confronts her whilst wearing a relatively muted habit à la française in brown. This is in sharp contrast to his earlier costumes of gorgeous silks and beautiful colours, with glittering vests and powdered wigs.
The opening scene of the film establishes the entire foundation of the plot without any dialogue, reinforcing Acheson’s realisation of Frear’s focus on the visual embodiment of the characters. There is no need for the characters to be introduced verbally, their opulent surroundings and elaborate attire tell the audience everything they need to know in the first five minutes.
It’s an attempt to show two people dressing for battle. This is a ritual of dressing, as if they were putting on armor like a samurai warrior. It’s the whole idea of protection and presentation, as they present themselves in an extraordinarily controlled image.Acheson talking about the beginning of the film
It is fitting then, as I said earlier that the film ends with the Marquise de Merteuil being stripped of all outward pretence. At the news of Valmont’s death she destroys the powders and serums that have preserved her beauty, and covered her dressing table. After she is rejected and heckled by the sycophants who once held her in such high social esteem, she sits alone, removing the white powder from her face and the red from her lips. Her careful construction of her outward appearance has been utterly shattered. The Marquise de Merteuil is no more.
This is my contribution to my and Paul’s The Bustles and Bonnets: Costume Blogathon.
9 thoughts on “The Danger of Desire: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)”
I saw this film many years ago, and although I’d forgotten many details – except for that ending – your superb review made it seem fresh in my mind again.
This film was made in two months?! That’s amazing – you’d never know it. It’s also amazing that Glenn Close had all those tedious wardrobe fittings only weeks after having a baby.
It’s time to see this exquisite film again!
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Thank you for such a lovely comment!
I know! I was shocked when I read it! They did all the costume research in less than a month! Yes she’s brilliant. I really think her Oscar is long, long overdue.
I really hope you enjoy your rewatch!
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Brilliantly decribes all aspects of the way of life that was then.. the elites of society (false and selfish) and the couldn’t care attitude to others feelings ..
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This is one of my favorite films and the attention you’ve given it here is just superb. I think it’s gorgeously-costumed and fascinating in its psychological study of two merciless people who shamelessly use others for their own amusement. I think Malcovich gives a great performance, but I rather wish it had been Alan Rickman…
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Thank you! Oh yes Rickman would’ve been superb. I watched a clip of him acting the part on YouTube, and it would’ve been very interesting to see him in the film indeed!
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Yes, I saw that as well. Oh, if only….
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I’ve heard of this but never seen it because it seems a little intimidating, but now I think I might try it. Looks like a gripping movie. 🙂
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