While most period-pieces these days are turgid waxwork displays with fanatical attention to costume detail and none at all to matters such as dramatic tension and pace, Dangerous Liaisons is that rare beast; a costume drama which is full of tension and excitement and unsentimentally ruthless in its depiction of human beings tearing each other apart. What we have here is one of the best adaptations of a stage play to the screen, conserving the merits of the original while successfully opening it out for the camera.
Glenn Close, in what is, for my money, one of the finest performances in screen history, plays the Marquise De Merteuil, a wealthy aristocrat in pre-revolutionary France who spends her time plotting poisonous schemes with the assistance of her long-time admire the Vicomte De Valmont (Malkovich). These two epitomise the decline of the Ancien Regime, literally fiddling while Rome burns, or at least while Paris smoulders. With nothing better to do than ruin people's lives, they decide to embark on an elaborate game to spice up their mutual attraction. The Marquise demands that Valmont seduce and deflower Cecile De Volanges (Thurman), in order to ruin her before she marries. In addition to this, Valmont also decides to take on a greater challenge, the seduction of the notoriously pious Madame De Tourvel (Pfeiffer), in return for access to the Marquise's bed. Both schemes prove easier than expected but the game is complicated by the sudden discovery of strong emotions in both players and soon begins to turn considerably darker than expected.
This is, of course, a storyline, derived from the 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuse" by Choderlos De Laclos, that is still very relevant today - a fact recognised by the 1999 loose remake Cruel Intentions - and there is an obvious attempt by Christopher Hampton and Stephen Frears to make the Marquise and Valmont thoroughly contemporary characters. This is a slightly problematic approach in the case of Valmont, since Malkovich plays him like a 1950's lounge lizard and thus renders the character change in the second half a little hard to swallow. But in the case of the Marquise, it is an unqualified success. She is a thoroughly modern woman trapped in the confines of the eighteenth century expectations of women who has learnt that appearances are everything and deeds must be covered-up so as to appear "proper". Glenn Close is riveting in the role, making the character both terrifying and strangely sympathetic; the scene where she explains how she learnt to hide her feelings "while sticking a fork into my leg", sums up the impossible position the woman finds herself in. Close has never been better than she is here, icy reserve and malicious humour eventually building up to a truly devastating explosion at the climax as she pays the price for her manipulations - the final moments, as she stares into camera with tears unchecked as she removes her make-up, are unforgettable and join "The Long Good Friday" and "Taxi Driver" in the list of great "confront the camera" climaxes. On a ranting side note, how many great movie roles are there for women now in American movies ? Why has Close been allowed to slip into relative decline, along with equally extraordinary forces such as Angelica Huston and Judy Davis ? In an industry that genuinely cared about women stars, these actresses would be dominating the screen in the modern equivalents of Mildred Pierce and Now Voyager. As it is, they get secondary roles in undeserving films. Still, we have Close in this film and Huston in The Grifters to remind us that two of the greatest stars on screen at the end of the twentieth century were women.
With Close dominating all before her, the rest of the cast are a bit irrelevant. However, Malkovich has a nice way with his dialogue for all the self-consciousness of his performance, and Uma Thurman is nicely precocious as the object of his attentions. Michelle Pfeiffer is very good, as usual, as the tragic (if more than a little irritating) Madame De Tourvel but she hasn't got much of a character to play. This is the main defect of the script in fact. Christopher Hampton obviously loves his two scheming monsters but isn't much interested in anyone else. He writes brilliant dialogue, especially for the Marquise, but the forces of virtue have a hard time coming through. Stephen Frears has a similar problem. Whenever Close isn't on screen, the pace drops a little and the cinematography becomes too obviously soft focus and chocolate-box pretty. However, he generally keeps things moving and the staging of the verbal duels between the Marquise and Valmont is superb, up there with the work of James Foley in the equally impressive adaptation of a stage play Glengarry Glen Ross. The design of the film is naturally beyond criticism, especially the costumes of James Acheson and the design of Stuart Craig; the real trick here is the way the settings and costumes are used to comment upon the characters. Philippe Rousselot provides lush and suitably decadent lighting and the editing is razor sharp - just look at how cleverly the duel scene is intercut with the scenes in the abbey. George Fenton's music is also very apt with pleasing use of period instruments.
I wouldn't want to overstate how good Dangerous Liaisons is, but it's the sort of intelligent and adult filmmaking that Stephen Frears is so good at. He realises that the plot is strong enough without being overstated and he clears the decks to allow Glenn Close to achieve her very best work. It would have been easy to turn the material into an airless and artificial period drama - exactly what Milos Forman did in the other Laclos adaptation of 1989, Valmont - but instead we have a compelling and emotionally exhausting war of words that rarely flags as it races for the inevitable tragic conclusion.
This was an early Warners release on R2 and it is obviously an unambitious effort. The picture is rather disappointing and there are no extras to speak of.
Although the film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1, the general quality of the image is unsatisfactory. Right from the start, the blacks look a little weak and show up some artifacting problems which continue throughout the film. There is an obvious softness to the picture and a lack of detail which I found distracting. Some slight grain in places. The colours are generally acceptable but this is not a good picture and does not do justice to the careful cinematography.
The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1 and is generally pleasing. Not too many surround effects but the general atmosphere is well evoked in the louder scenes and the use of directional speech is very striking. The music sounds superb throughout.
There are no extras of any note. Some production notes are on the disc and these are well written but brief and the biographies are equally insubstantial. Otherwise there is nothing, not even a trailer. The film deserves better and I would like to think it might be revisited as a special edition in due course.
Dangerous Liaisons is a film that looks better and better as time goes on. What appears at first to be an elegant bitch-fest comedy turns into something genuinely affecting and Glenn Close is simply extraordinary. The DVD is sadly inadequate, despite the merits of the soundtrack, but if you can get it very cheap (I paid a fiver for my copy) it's worth the money for the time being.
While most period-pieces these days are turgid waxwork displays with fanatical attention to costume ...