Saturday, March 12, 2011

Keep Your (Wig) Powder Dry

Film: Dangerous Liaisons
Format: DVD from personal collection on kick-ass portable DVD player.

I imagine that for an actor, a period piece is a lot of fun, depending on the period. It might be entertaining for a day or two to run around in a loincloth, but that would get pretty old pretty fast. However, something taking place during the Victorian Era, perhaps…or in France before the Revolution? The costumes look like they might be a problem at times, but it still looks like it would be fun. There are few more lavish period pieces than Stephen Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons, and few better.

As with many a great story, what’s going on here is actually quite simple. A French noblewoman named Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) wishes to be revenged on a former lover who left her—the first time any lover has dared do that to her. When this lover departed, he left with the mistress of Vicomte Sebastien de Valmont (John Malkovich), the one-time lover and sort of friend of the Marquise. This former lover of hers has settled on a woman to be his wife, Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), both for her beauty and for her chastity—guaranteed by her convent education. The Marquise wishes Valmont to seduce the girl and spoil her for her wedding night.

But Valmont initially refuses. He has a reputation as the greatest rake in France, and this conquest would be too easy. He has set his sights on Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a woman noted for her purity, religious fervor, and happiness of her marriage. His goal is to make her betray everything she holds dear, enjoying her fall into the betrayal of her beloved husband. The Marquise is intrigued by this and promises a night of sexual passion to Valmont if he can offer written proof in de Tourvel’s own hand that he has seduced her successfully.

The Marquise and Valmont are our two main characters, and they spend the bulk of the film exercising their appetites for virtually all of the seven deadly sins. Only gluttony seems to sit out, and with a little thought, that one can probably be added to the mix. Certainly the two bear no slight without furious and overwhelming anger and revenge; they lust after everything and everyone they see; they spend money on whims; are part of the idle rich nobility; envy anyone else garnering attention for anything; and exhibit a pride unlike any seen on a movie screen. These are not nice people.

While Valmont schemes to win the heart of Madame de Tourvel by any means possible, the Marquise works to get anyone into the sack with Cecile, including a poor music teacher named Danceny (Keanu Reaves). Ultimately, pretty much everybody goes to bed with everyone else, betrayal abounds, and lives are wrecked on the shores of pride, arrogance, and sexual passion.

I admit it sounds pretty lame, but it really isn’t. The intrigues are convoluted and vicious. Better, despite the fact that the women wear umpteen layers of clothing and the men wear powdered wigs and lace cuffs, this movie brings the sexy. There is something undeniably erotic and tawdry about someone using one lover as a desk to write a letter to another lover.

One of the best scenes is the opening one. We see our two main characters getting dressed and prepared for their day. Both of them require an army of servants to powder them, squeeze them, primp them, dust, daub, tuck, fold, and otherwise spindle them into what was the fashion of the day in pre-Revolution Paris. It’s a great scene for a couple of reasons. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic introduction into the era. It also serves to show us precisely how much pretense these characters put on—nothing about them is what it seems and everything is hidden under layers of falsehood.

Our two main characters are in many ways the only ones who are important. The others could really be played by almost anyone. Cecile needs only to be young and pretty, and Uma Thurman does a credible job here. Her mother (Swoosie Kurtz) needs only to be outraged by everything she sees, and she’s good at it. De Tourvel needs only be innocuous and pretty—two things Michelle Pfeiffer can pull off. The only person I think is miscast is Keanu Reaves, but I think that about Keanu Reaves in everything except The Matrix and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. This is Close’s and Malkovich’s movie, as it should be. Malkovich’s performance is nuanced and tremendous, and I think it may well be the single greatest acting role and performance of Glenn Close’s very storied career.

I watched this film for the first time years ago and remembered that I thought it was good. This second viewing a couple of decades later has shown me that I underestimated it. This movie is more than good—it’s one of the best of its kind. For the men in my reading audience, don’t shy away from this one. Watch this with someone special. It’s lurid and tawdry, and might well excite a few passions, which is reward of its own. Even if it doesn’t my guess is you’ll enjoy the intrigues and the plots exhibited here, even if it does mean seeing John Malkovich’s bare ass.

This film is actually a remake--I'm curious to see the original.

Why to watch Dangerous Liaisons: The prettiest piece of evil you’ll ever see.
Why not to watch: John Malkovich’s naked ass.


  1. I thought the same thing about the opening of the movie: we were witness to the layering-on of pretense. I see you didn't write about the final moments of the film, perhaps because that would constitute a spoiler, but I'm sure you'd agree that those final moments form an interesting symmetry with the opening.

  2. They do--and yeah, that would be a spoiler. But in many ways, the ending is sort of the natural result of what happens in those first few minutes.

  3. Great summary and review. I too was amazed at the simplicity of the story and yet how engaging the film is.

    I'm just not sure how I had actually avoided seeing Dangerous Liaisons until this weekend, but wow - thanks again 1001 movie list! :)

    looking forward to seeing the other reviews of the 1001 club members on this one.

  4. Me too. I'm always curious when I am reminded of how much I like something if others will feel the same way.