How does Les liaisons dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel of 1782, look when viewed through the lens of the late 1980s? The book was adapted into a play, Dangerous Liaisons, by Christopher Hampton and first performed by the RSC at Stratford-upon-Avon in 1985 before moving to the Barbican’s Pit in 1986 and then to Broadway in 1987. In 1988 Hampton turned his play into a film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont: the central pair of ex-lovers who use seduction as a tool and weapon. The action is catalysed by the end of Merteuil’s own current liaison, when her lover leaves her for an arranged marriage to fifteen-year-old Cécile (played by Uma Thurman). Merteuil takes her revenge by bribing Valmont, with a promise of her own body, to first steal the young girl’s virginity and then to seduce the virtuous and married Madame de Tourvel (played by Michelle Pfeiffer). A sullen Keanu Reeves plays Danceny, Cécile’s handsome young music teacher, and an equally fresh-faced Peter Capaldi features as Valmont’s servant.
Dangerous Liaisons fits in the class of other turn-of-the-90s sexual thrillers: Single While Female, Basic Instinct, Fatal Attraction – all films that see a clever, libidinal character manipulate the normal domestic balance. These are stories that worry intensely about the vulnerability of the socially orthodox life, and the dangerous characters that feature in them are designed to frighten and excite precisely because of the way they cross these boundaries. These films often feature communications technology: the exposing answerphone message, the landline ringing late at night, the hidden Dictaphone, showing the 80s’ preoccupation with performances of communication and the way contemporary media afforded opportunities for both secrecy and exposure.
In Laclos’s original novel, which is composed entirely of letters between the characters, we recognise the true permeability of the household – and the bedroom – through the way these messages circulate. As Erasmus knew, letters make the absent friend present, and beyond that they carry the affect of the correspondent. In Laclos’s novel it is letters that travel from bed to hand to pocket and closet, creating a secret space between correspondents but also a cache of incriminating evidence. Hampton’s film is sensitive to the literary background and letters are dramatized through cuts and flashbacks and even depictions of letter writing, along with use of letter-writers’ narrative voices.
It takes a while to get your eye in to Close’s Merteuil and Malkovich’s Valmont, who initially come across as grotesques, but they have a real parity and their actions believably drive the plot while also necessitating their own demise. Their world is shadowy, and they seem larger-than-life in the stately homes they inhabit, in which the bedrooms are always underlit and claustrophobic, and the exteriors riddled with visual tricks, for example a fantastic set of mirrored doors at Merteuil’s house that almost look like something out of a Madonna video. Several contemporary reviewers of Dangerous Liaisons noted that Malkovich is not ‘conventionally handsome’, which misses the point, because Valmont is supposed to be as his most prized conquest Madame de Tourvel experiences him: disgustingly, even morbidly irresistible. In his obsession with Tourvel Valmont becomes almost reminiscent of Malcolm McDowell in Cat People (1982) – predatory. This film makes visible the gothic aspects of Laclos’s story and the ending, in which both Valmont and Tourvel die, feels like one of the rational denouements of that genre – at last, the threat is neutralised.
We might also expect a psychologically tense rendering from Miloš Forman’s Valmont (1989). Forman directed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and in his version of Laclos’s novel he ends up with something that feels a lot like a twisted, period rom-com, disturbing exactly because of its affability. Here, Valmont is played by Colin Firth in what would later become Firth’s trademark foppish style. In the first of Firth’s trilogy of cinematic wet-white-shirt moments (c.f. Pride and Prejudice and Love, Actually) Valmont pretends to drown to get Madame de Tourvel’s attention. This threat of dying for love at the start of the film is not taken seriously by the camera or the characters, and Valmont’s eventual death by duel at the end is taken just as lightly, directed like a Monty Python Don Quixote sketch. This same toxic silliness is used in Valmont’s seduction of Cécile as she is approached from behind while transcribing a letter, which he orders her to keep writing. It’s a horrible moment: certainly a rape, in this version, made yet more jarring by the fact that the film’s visuals are always pretty, never gritty, in what feels like an anticipation of the 90s New Man trope.
Merteuil here is played by Annette Bening and the film purposely draws attention to her character’s age, emphasizing that what is at stake, partly, in her own manipulations is the fact that she is ceasing to be desirably young. Cécile de Volanges is played by Fairuza Balk as immature and naïve, and Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemont, is comically aged. The materiality of letters is emphasized in this film: the sheer bulk of the lovers’ correspondence. One scene sees Cécile’s mother demand Danceny’s letters from Cécile’s closet, and then throw them down in a bundle on the table. Danceny shouts and refuses to return his half of the correspondence before leaving the house, and the letters are tangible on the screen. His half of the correspondence here is invoked first and foremost as a parcel, a pile, and from there the implication of amassed sentiment.
These two film adaptations have a markedly different flavor. Hampton’s reading seems to emphasize the exceptionality of Valmont and Merteuil, and the unique nature of their psychological games. Forman’s film instead makes Valmont and his abusive seductions seem prosaic, as if they might happen anywhere, which I think is more frightening.
Dangerous Liaisons (dir. Frears, 1988) and Valmont (dir. Forman, 1989) are both available on DVD.