Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Cruel Intentions (1999)
In the past twenty years, three films showcasing some of Hollywood's finest actors have borrowed the same unlikely source material: Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the story of a group of decadent French aristocrats whose licentious games bring many to ruin. Though the book had been filmed before -- Roger Vadim's 1959 movie starred Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Philipe as a couple of nouvelle Parisian swingers -- the inspiration for the revival was Christopher Hampton's 1985 stage play based on Laclos' novel, which won rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic and proved that the source material had not become dated despite its age.
Because the story of Les Liaisons Dangereuses unfolds entirely via letters written among the characters with no omniscient author intervention, the novel offers great subjectivity of interpretation -- not only about who should be considered the protagonists and who the villains, but about the significance of events and even, in some cases, what actually happened. The reader must decide which letters to accept as the "true" accounts and which to dismiss. It becomes clear that regardless of their moral virtues, some of the narrators can be trusted more than others. Predatory Merteuil makes pithy, vivid observations about the other characters, while clueless Madame de Volanges misconstrues the motives of everyone. Since Volanges writes the final letter gossiping about the fates of the other characters, the conclusion is thrown into doubt; indeed, one is tempted to believe the opposite of what Volanges reports, given her previous naiveté.
But the films unfold along linear timelines, leaving far less room for spectators to reinterpret events. Thus, each of the four movies mentioned here has a different ending, and the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses differs from Dangerous Liaisons even though Hampton wrote the screenplay for that film based on his own script. In addition, the characterizations vary in the two period dramas, though the aristocrats' actions remain fairly consistent. Cruel Intentions, set in the late 1990s when it was also produced, more closely parallels Dangerous Liaisons than the source novel, though its young characters look to be the ages of the stars of Valmont and of Laclos' youthful aristocrats rather than the mature adults of Frears' film.
The story in each of the three films begins with the Marquise de Merteuil discovering that her former lover plans to marry a well-born virgin -- Merteuil's protégée Cécile, the daughter of her acquaintance Madame de Volanges. The Marquise realized at a young age that the only way for a woman to have power was by manipulating the reputations of others; she attempts to enlist her dear friend and onetime beloved Valmont to seduce Cécile, which will humiliate the man who left her. But Valmont has already set a challenge for himself. He wants to make love to the virtuous beauty Madame de Tourvel. Merteuil and Valmont make a bet: if he can succeed with Tourvel, the Marquise will reward him with sexual favors, and meanwhile will count on his assistance in ruining Cécile's reputation by encouraging her crush on her music teacher, Danceny.
Upon discovering that Volanges has warned Tourvel away from him, the angry Valmont seduces Volanges' daughter, enlisting Merteuil's help to convince Cécile that he can teach her how to please Danceny. Then Valmont maneuvers Tourvel into bed, confessing to Merteuil that he's very nearly in love with his prey. Merteuil taunts Valmont into breaking up with the other woman, but he longs to woo Tourvel back. Jealous and disgusted, Merteuil refuses to make love with Valmont, claiming that Danceny is more man than he is; she then alerts Danceny to Valmont's relationship with Cécile, leading the younger man to challenge the elder to a duel. Envy and fury lead to bloodshed, though some of the victims differ in each film.
Merteuil is not meant to be a heroine, yet in all three films she's an unforgettable force. (This is true, as well, in the novel.) Merteuil's early letters to Valmont function like a diary, for Valmont's status is partly the Marquise's invention, and in writing to him she sees herself and her power reflected. The reader as well as Valmont is seduced by her, invited into her intimacy and asked to share as accomplice as well as voyeur in her schemes. Valmont, too, hides little from the Marquise but, as she points out, Valmont is adept enough at deceiving himself that he occasionally misinterprets the actions of others. He fails to foresee, for example, how much Cécile will resent him after surrendering her virginity.
The other characters, though honest in varying degrees, prove more gullible to the suggestions of others. Cecile and Danceny continually express their frustration that their youth and inexperience lead them into foolish actions, while Valmont's aunt Madame de Rosemonde explains that, at her age, she continues to expect better morals than those she finds around her. Volanges has no sense of the intrigues taking place under her own roof, and Tourvel allows desires to cloud her judgement even when she witnesses Valmont's infidelities first-hand. Only Merteuil offers consistent views of the events as they unfold, for she pulls the strings which control the other characters as well as herself. Not her objectivity but her subjectivity makes her seem the most intelligent, focused character.
In the 18th century, letter-writing was one of the principal vehicles for women to influence public opinion, as well as the main literary form in which women could participate equally. Published in Paris only seven years before the French Revolution, the scandalous Les Liaisons Dangereuses -- which was rumored to be not a work of fiction but a collection of letters actually circulated concerning true events -- picked up not only on the popular obsession with aristocratic evils but on the reading public's fascination with the spread of rumor through circulated letters. These sentiments are mirrored in modern society by popular obsession with the decadence of movie stars. The box office successes Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions each star a group of actors who have become as famous as brand names: Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves, Uma Thurman, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon.
Forman's cast was less known when he made his movie; Colin Firth had not yet become famous for numerous costume dramas, and Annette Bening had not yet become Mrs. Warren Beatty, though Meg Tilly and Jeffrey Jones were both respected and award-nominated actors. Forman chose to portray the aristocrats as younger and more frivolous than in the other movies and the novel, which has the effect of making his film seem less weighty, yet shifts the focus to offer insight into the class and gender conflicts that fuel the story. Sexual histories are discussed openly at crowded dining tables, and no one seems shocked when Cecile publicly announces her desire to marry one man and keep another as a lover.
"Private" letters are shown not to be so, as nearly every character can be seen through the correspondence of others. While Valmont usurps the Marquise's principal role and becomes the tragic hero of the film, none of Forman's women are judged for their actions. They gather in the end at a wedding and, though none appears likely to live happily ever after, they all seem content with the positions in which their maneuverings have left them.
Hampton's play Les Liaisons Dangereuses ends with the shadow of the guillotine falling across the stage, though in the moment, Merteuil plays chess and enjoys the return of her control. In the film version, the Revolutionary darkness has yet touched her, though she is more pensive, more aware of the costs of her brutal actions. Frears seems more interested in catching the nuances of Merteuil's clothes and makeup than her words. She is the object of the viewer's gaze, not its director as in the novel. The film leaves nothing to the imagination -- not the faces, not the clothing, not even naked bodies. It isn't open-ended like the novel; again, Valmont takes on the role of tragic hero, but where Forman made him the scapegoat for the extravagance of all the characters, Frears turns the blame back toward Merteuil.
In Dangerous Liaisons, Glenn Close echoed her more infamous role as a blonde aggressor in Fatal Attraction, earning another Academy Award nomination for her smiling cruelty and cutting wit. Co-stars John Malkovich (Valmont) and Michelle Pfeiffer (Tourvel) also gave memorable performances as the illicit lovers, but they made just as many headlines by having an affair during production -- a situation later paralleled by Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon, who fell in love and conceived a child while playing the Valmont and Tourvel characters in Cruel Intentions. Just as 18th-century French readers were tempted to take the upper-class excesses of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as reality, contemporary viewers can enjoy the same sort of gossip about celebrities.
What Phillippe and Witherspoon lack in the mature sophistication of Malkovich and Pfeiffer, they make up for in style. Phillippe at times seems deliberately to be echoing Malkovich's performance in Dangerous Liaisons, particularly in his treatment of Cécile and his painful love for Merteuil. Similarly, Kumble's stylized dialogue echoes Hampton line for line in places; it's a gutsy move to pay homage to such a recent adaptation, but it pays off, for if it weren't made obvious that the modern film should be taken as a period piece of sorts, the theatrical behavior of the protagonists might seem ludicrous. Instead, although they're not really believable, the characters come across with the grandeur of tragedy as well as the humor of youthful spontaneity.
The sublime Sarah Michelle Gellar takes the role of Merteuil and makes it her own. Though she's best known as the tough heroine of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she proves, as Merteuil, that she can bite, too. Not quite the bitch that Glenn Close creates in Dangerous Liaisons, the resentments of Gellar's Merteuil stem from absent parents, boys who reject her eager sexuality in favor of naïve bimbos, and the need to maintain a façade of propriety and purity to get good grades and hold an office at school. By turns witty and vicious, young Merteuil snaps out Heathers-like insults with more polish and even fewer morals than the titular girls of that film. "Be her Captain Picard, Valmont...boldly go where no man has gone before," she implores in regard to Cécile. If Valmont loses the bet to bed the virgin, Merteuil wants his Jaguar as her consolation prize.
Despite her constrained position as a woman in a society that punishes female sexual aggressiveness to this day, Merteuil's power remains formidable. At no time does any character have power over her that she does not grant. The virtue of a woman does not rest physically in her body, but in her control over public discussion of it; a girl needs not a hymen but a good reputation to maintain her status as a virgin. If the various versions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses offer any clear any message, it is that what people do influences their reputations less than what they say and what is said about them by others. But in the end, gossip and spying are their own rewards; those outside the scenario, looking in with horrified delight as the rich and famous attempt to seduce and destroy one another, are the real winners.