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‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ (NR)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 08, 1989

Twenty-nine years before British director Stephen Frears's recent wig-and-powdered "Dangerous Liaisons," with Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, there was "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," a rompy French version directed by Roger Vadim, who was just over a dangerous liaison himself with Brigitte Bardot.

Updating Choderlos de Laclos' novel (written 177 years before that), Vadim set the bedroom intrigue against a Parisian eve-of-the-'60s world of jazz and sexual permissiveness, cast French siren Jeanne Moreau as predatory Juliette (the Close role in Frears's film) and gave his wife Annette Vadim the innocent-prey role (later played by Pfeiffer).

What Vadim couldn't have known was how his movie, now retitled "Dangerous Liaisons 1960" (and made in 1959), would have played at Key Theatre 1989 with its dated air of finger-snapping cool; or how he comes across now, sauntering on-camera in a ham-fisted director's introduction, casting aside a black cape and saying things like, "Ah don' wan' yoo to sink that in France, all women be'ave lak Juliette."

Uh, Roger . . .

To watch the movie, though, is still fabulous -- not because it's a Great Film -- but because it bounces along as if it were a great film. Made during the heyday of the French "Nouvelle Vague," the movement that launched Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and several other directors, it aspires to cinematic hipness -- the camera peeps at the sexual players from behind chairs, even from under the sheets, and there's a wonderful music track supplied by Thelonious Monk.

But, as with so many other French movies and songs, "Liaisons 19-whatever" is blithely unaware of its French prissiness -- which makes it all the more fun to watch.

Picture then-young vixen Moreau parading around in an ocelot fur coat and married to fellow sexual hunter Gerard Philipe (imagine "Hawaii Five-0's" Jack Lord imitating "The Thin Man's" William Powell imitating Maurice Chevalier); the two swinger-vampires are constantly sniffing the city lovescape for fresh blood. Or a young Jean-Louis Trintignant playing a geeky, marriage-shy mathematician. Or the jazz club-den where, as a climactic death takes place, inspired "Negro" jazzmen -- frequently movie metaphors for "decadence" -- wail and jam in the background, amorally oblivious to the foreground hanky-panky.

"Les Liaisons Dangereuses" is in French with subtitles.

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