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‘Dangerous Liaisons’

By Desson Howe
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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They're deliciously wicked, these "Dangerous Liaisons." But they're also wanting.

Director Stephen Frears accelerates entertainingly through Christopher Hampton's wig-and-powder sado-comedy about sexual mind games in 18th-century France. Like his fellow countryman Richard Lester, Frears ("Prick Up Your Ears," "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid") values snappy editing, a whimsical mood and a freewheeling camera.

But John Malkovich's lead performance digs in its heels, deadening the movie's speedy exhilaration. The result is a highly diverting but ultimately unsatisfying production that doesn't perform -- so much as paraphrase -- the script.

Malkovich is the Vicomte de Valmont, a shameless gentleman who preys on female hearts and minds for sadistic pleasure. Glenn Close, now permanently reduced (after "Jagged Edge," "Fatal Attraction" and now "Liaisons") to a vengeful metaphor, is his former lover and still partner-in-cruelty. As the Marquise de Merteuil, she aids and abets the Vicomte and does a little manipulation of her own.

You meet them at the onset of another convolution-as-usual. The Marquise, angry that her young lover Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves) has left her for a young virgin (Uma Thurman), asks the Vicomte to avenge her by seducing the girl.

The Vicomte, meanwhile, has recreational designs on the overly pious Madame de Tourvel (a suitably chaste -- and ravishing -- Michelle Pfeiffer). He wants to make her fall in love with him and make her betray everything she stands for in the process. Should he fulfill his two tasks, and get proof of his conquests in writing, the Vicomte's reward will be a roll around the four-poster with the Marquise.

You have to believe beauty queen Pfeiffer would fall for a guy with an oversized forehead whose bratty, fey demeanor suggests an exaggerated drag queen posing as a dandy. Malkovich's casting against stud-type might have worked if Malkovich had firmly grabbed "Liaisons" and made it his. Think of the devilish difference tubby, aging Jack Nicholson brought to "The Witches of Eastwick," for instance. Nicholson compelled you with every gesture, every move. To command your respect in "Liaisons," the duller Malkovich would have to immolate himself.

The joy of "Liaisons' " sex remains an implication, not a realization. Screenwriter Hampton adapts his play perfectly well (his play, in turn, adapted from the 19th-century French novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"), to create an Eris-meets-Eros fantasy (with a deliciously cynical ending) where the 20th-century viewer delights -- safely -- in the manipulation of fancy-dress people in a century long, long ago. But Malkovich, an obvious anachronism from our century, wouldn't pique a demoiselle's interest if he fell down her cleavage.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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