"DodO iS noT dEAd"

A punk Naturalist

Sunday, 31 January 2010

18th century in films /3: Dangerous Liaisons, by Stephen Frears (1988)

Ou, Les Adaptations Dangereuses.

In pre-revolutionary France, two bored aristocrats, former lovers, embark on sophisticated games of seduction with destructive results. The Marquise de Merteuil wants to exact revenge on Gercourt, who humiliated her, by challenging the Vicomte de Valmont to seduce Gercourt’s future wife, a innocent convent girl. The Vicomte, deeming the task to easy, has in view the seemingly impossible conquest a beautiful and faithful married woman, Mme de Tourvel.

Stephen Frears set himself quite a challenge when he adapted Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses – a novel entirely made of letters. The multiplicity of voices and reconstructed chronology that makes the epistolary genre so unique was bound to get lost on the way. Not to mention the fact that this masterpiece of the French language was to be shot… in English.

Yet Frears manages the difficult translation of book into film, thanks a fine understanding of the work and a very clever direction. The opening scene, showing, in parallel tableaux, Mme de Merteuil and Valmont being dressed “to kill”, like two knights equal in worth putting on their armours, is masterful. The other theme introduced from the beginning is that of the mask. Valmont and Merteuil, who show to the world a face of respectability while acting as ruthless libertine, are filmed as two actors putting the finishing touches to their costumes. The scene is echoed at the end, when Mertheuil’s inner blackness has been revealed by the circulation of her private letters. In an intelligent departure from the book, the marquise, booed when she appears at the theatre, retires, and, in close-up, is seen removing her make up, before the screen turns to black.

The film is helped by the three exceptional performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, deeply moving as a virtuous woman fighting a hopeless fight against a love that will ultimately destroy her. Uma Thurman makes a convincing ingénue, soon won over by Valmont’s very particular lessons; Keanu Reeves as naïve Sir Danceny is his usual bland self – which fits the character rather well.

Dangerous Liaisons (US, 1988). A film by Stephen Frears. Starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.

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