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‘Dangerous Liaisons’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 13, 1989


Stephen Frears
Glenn Close;
John Malkovich;
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Mildred Natwick;
Swoosie Kurtz
Under 17 restricted
Adapted Screenplay; Art Direction; Costume Design

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"Dangerous Liaisons," based on the 1782 Choderlos de Laclos novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," is tantalizingly wicked -- watching it makes the color rise to your cheeks. From the opening close-up of Glenn Close as she grins with devilish self-satisfaction into her dressing mirror, the picture exerts an insinuating hold. You feel as if it is being whispered in your ear.

Set just prior to the French Revolution, "Dangerous Liaisons" is about sex as gamesmanship, and its spirit is keyed to Close's nakedly malevolent smile. Close plays the Marquise de Merteuil, a Parisian socialite whose days are spent concocting elaborate erotic intrigues, and, poised before her vanity table, she seems majestically corrupt, like an evil queen in a fairy story. With that opening glance, she draws the audience into her confidence, making it a party to her cynical schemes.

It's this sense of complicity that makes the movie such a delectably naughty experience. This sort of wit and immediacy is extraordinarily rare in a period film. Instead of making the action seem far off, the filmmakers put the audience in the room with their characters. The film introduces us to two irresistible scoundrels -- the Marquise and her coconspirator and former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich). The metaphor for sex that director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (who adapted his own play) have set up for exploration is war, and in the movie's opening sequence there's a rush of anticipation as Close and Malkovich, in separate chambers, are coiffed and powdered by their servants for battle. For these players, mere pleasure -- physical pleasure, that is -- is the slightest of motives. Sex -- and its paltry adjunct, love -- is unworthy of these aristocratic combatants; they're beneath them, prosaic, common.

For Valmont and the Marquise, victory is the ultimate pleasure -- the only pleasure. In two of his earlier films -- "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" -- Frears showed a savvy understanding of the games lovers play. Here he glories in the intricacy of the strategies, the forged letters, the elaborate lies. With a few deft, economical strokes, Frears sets the story. Hoping to take her revenge on a betrayer, the Marquise conspires to have Valmont deflower the unwitting Ce'cile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), a virginal convent girl who is to be her enemy's bride and who was chosen expressly for her purity. Though Valmont is always eager to accommodate the Marquise, and the young girl is a luscious prize, the assignment is almost an insult to him. It's too easy.

Instead, Valmont has marked a loftier peak to climb, a luminous beauty well-known for her piety and fidelity named Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). But the meddling of Ce'cile's mother, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), in the Vicomte's delicate maneuvers gives him reason to effect a plot that will satisfy both himself and the Marquise. All this is done with the casual flourish of a master.

There's a sublime perversity in Frears' casting, especially that of Malkovich. With his coarse jackal's face and lisping effeminacy, Malkovich seems the unlikeliest of Don Juans. But Malkovich brings a fascinating dimension to his character that would be missing with a more conventionally handsome leading man. His presence underlines just how small a role physical beauty plays in seduction. With Malkovich, everything turns on artistry and experience. For him, lovemaking -- like most things -- is a matter of technique, preparation, will. By the time he has lured the innocent Ce'cile into copying her boudoir key for the purpose of delivering the letters of the ardent young Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves), there is no choice left to her but to submit. It was too easy after all.

For this reason, it is inevitable that Valmont and the Marquise become adversaries -- they're the only ones worthy of each other. Close is harder to warm to than Malkovich; she's spinsterish and a little stern -- somehow it's hard to imagine her enjoying a moment of sexual release. But perhaps that's the point Frears hopes to make. The Marquise is an epic dissembler. It's appropriate that some of the scenes are set at the opera -- her deceptions are positively Verdian. Close looks marvelous in the glorious costumes James Acheson has designed for her, but she also seems imprisoned by them. In the same sense, she is imprisoned by her sex, and her anger is what fuels the movie and gives it its propulsive urgency. Sex, jealousy, envy, revenge are so jumbled up in her head that she hardly bothers to separate them. Her impulse, simply, is to exert her influence in the world -- how she exerts herself seems almost beside the point. This is her power. And she uses it willfully, whenever and however she likes, without a thought for the damage.

The Marquise's compulsive destructiveness makes her a character with true classical grandeur. There's something curdled in her. And perhaps this is most evident when Michelle Pfeiffer is onscreen. Of the three principal roles, Pfeiffer's is the least obvious and the most difficult. Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it. Her porcelain-skinned beauty, in this regard, is a great asset, and the way it's used makes it seem an aspect of her spirituality. Her purity shines through her pores. For this reason, her submission to Valmont is doubly powerful. (Simply the physical contrast is a shock.) When she falls, she falls perilously and deeply.

What happens for the viewer is mirrored in the changes in the characters. What began as an delicious amusement deepens into a tragedy. The richness at the end of the film isn't quite what was expected at the beginning when we admired the talcumy lightness of Philippe Rousselot's cinematography. The passion, for us and for them, comes as a surprise. For them it's cataclysmic; for us, it's divine.

Dangerous Liaisons, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some nudity and adult situations. @CAPTION: Glenn Close and John Malkovich i "Dangerous Liaisons."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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