At first glance, Dangerous Liaisons would seem to be another boring, high minded period piece brought to you by PBS or Merchant & Ivory. Don’t be fooled. The plot revolves around the scheming and vindictive Marquise de Merteuil and the equally sinister Vicomte de Valmont, played with joyful malice by Glenn Close and John Malkovich respectively.
In order to exact revenge on her ex-lover Bastide, the Marquise enlists the aid of Valmont, another former lover, to destroy the innocent reputation of a young girl Bastide is set to marry (played by a young Uma Thurman). It gets interesting when Valmont refuses, claiming its degree of difficulty would prove “humiliating if you don’t succeed and commonplace if you do”. Instead, Valmont is more excited about the loftier prospect of seducing the highly moral and religious Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – a challenge he claims would be his crowning achievement if he pulls it off.
The plot details eventually get more complicated, but by no means less interesting. No fair to give away more than that, but suffice it to say that these two morally corrupt individuals epitomize the debauched aristocracy in pre-revolutionary France. If that’s the only point to be made, however, then the movie would have been just another meaningless exercise in sadism.
The Vicomte and the Marquise begin to wage a battle of the sexes and it becomes apparent that the people around them are regarded as little more than chess pieces, manipulated as a means to their own selfish, vengeful ends. Sex is freely used as a weapon; manipulation, treachery and lies are all layered in a dizzying, vicious and carefree manner. Leaving a trail of ruined people, both the Marquise and Vicomte revel in the process of destroying people for the mere sport of it. It’s especially fascinating to watch the Marquise view her position in French aristocratic society with a detached, scientific curiosity, and then deftly navigate and exploit these societal restrictions to exact her revenge and impress her will.
But ultimately, Dangerous Liaisons is about two people so broken they can’t admit their own love for each other. When the Vicomte finally grows a bit of a conscience, it’s the Marquise that deals the most vicious blow. There aren’t enough adjectives to describe the performances of Glenn Close and John Malkovich. You can tell they’re having so much fun playing these thoroughly rotten characters. Not to take away from Close’s brilliant performance, but Malkovich is a revelation. Forgoing the traditional English accent most actors employ when playing period characters, Malkovich puts a modern spin on the Vicomte. He sounds like a spoiled, bored trust fund baby from New England.
The opening scene finds the Marquise admiring her smug grin in the mirror, and the bookend to this initial cinematic flourish, is the final scene in which the Marquise bitterly removes her make-up, a letting down of the mask, if you will, to one of the best comeuppances I’ve ever seen. Executed with this much intricacy, and played with such malice and cutting dialogue makes this “period piece” a howling wolf in sheep’s clothing.