Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Christopher Hampton
(based on the novel LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos)
Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick & Uma Thurman
Though written more than centuries ago, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s DANGEROUS LIAISONS still holds up as all too relevant in this day and age. Birthing a massive amount of controversy since its release, this scandalous French novel is one of the first instances of sex in literature being turned into a tool for manipulation and power as opposed to an act of the deepest love and affection. The 1988 film adaptation masterfully transports the viewer back into 18th century France and forces them to examine a pair of purposely unlikable characters much to our shock and awe. DANGEROUS LIAISONS is a devilish delight for cinephiles and fans of Laclos’s novel.
Merteuil and Valmont are two former lovers and aristocrats who consider themselves on a higher intellectual pedestal than the lesser souls around them. Using their cunning wits, the two devise a game in which Valmont will seduce two separate women with the goal of humiliation in mind for the reward of a night alone with Merteuil. Valmont’s first conquest is Cecile, the virginal fiancée of a well-to-do music teacher. The second is a Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament. This game of seduction, double-crossing, and manipulation has unforeseen consequences on everyone involved. Both the players and their victims will suffer dire consequences.
At its core, DANGEROUS LIAISONS is all about relationships both physical and emotional. As far as the sexual content goes, the viewer is given a couple of sensual moments and nothing overly erotic or cheesy. Most of the sex scenes are left to our imagination with mere suggestive comments and sly innuendos about what acts being performed behind closed bedroom doors. Though there’s plenty of emotion to the proceedings as Valmont actually begins to show real feelings towards one of his would-be victims, it doesn’t stop the film from sprinkling in bits of dark humor. One morning-after moment with Valmont gets some big laughs, but that doesn’t make his actions any less cruel. The movie also manages to take the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster into areas they might not have initially expected upon going in (unless they have read or known the source material).
Glenn Close gives one of the best performances of her career as Merteuil. She puts on an innocent respectable persona while her noble friends are around, but reveals her darker true self whenever she’s alone with Valmont. John Malkovich is absolutely fantastic as the complicated Valmont. Though he introduces himself as a repulsive individual lacking a basic moral compass, Valmont quickly shows that there could be a genuine good and caring side to him…if things work out in his favor. Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer are solid in their roles of Valmont’s potential victims. However, there’s one performance that sticks out like a sore thumb. Keanu Reeves is wooden as the music teacher. Though he’s barely in the film, Reeves simply doesn’t belong in a cast like this and uses a distractingly wooden delivery that competes with his role in 1992’s DRACULA as the biggest mood-killer in an otherwise amazing film.
The technical accomplishments in DANGEROUS LIAISONS masterfully bring Pre-Revolution France to the screen. Costumes are elegant. Sets are exquisite and convincing. The classical music is fitting. This is one of those rare period pieces where you actually feel as if you’ve transported back to said time period. Clearly, a lot of attention was paid to the tiniest details, save for Keanu’s unconvincing performance.
In an emotionally shattering scene near the end of the film, one character states that vanity and happiness are incompatible. Truer words have never been spoken and DANGEROUS LIAISONS has never been more relevant. This is a scary notion that’s beyond anyone’s control, but it’s brought to startling light in this fantastic film that more than does justice to a masterful and hugely influential literary masterpiece.