A diabolically delicious, utterly vicious melodrama of mannered deceptions, Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988) is based on Pierre Choderlos de Laclos 18th century epistolary French novel and the contemporary stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton who also wrote the film’s screenplay. Laclos novel represented something of a challenge for film makers in that its narrative is largely internalized through a series of emotional correspondences; not through outward action. In the book, the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil succumbs to a painful plague and loses an eye after the traitorous letters sent to co-conspirator Valmont are made public. The film provides a more circumspect and reserved fate with Merteuil merely ostracized from her close knit circle of fair-weather friends.
Despite the fact that all of the actors cast in the film speak perfect English, Frear’s strives for an authentic French sensibility. Conversations are spoken in hushed whisper to evoke the courtly, yet deceptive grace of 18th century nobility. Authenticity also appears to have been the order of the day in Stuart Craig’s production design. Shot entirely on location in and around authentic buildings in Ile de France and Picardie, including the world famous Chateau de Vincennes, the film’s brooding candle lit interiors are augmented by George Fenton's original score – interwoven with classical pieces of baroque chamber music.
The plot concocted by Christopher Hampton adheres very closely to Laclos original masterwork. The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) bets her deviant partner, the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) that he will be unable to perform a seduction on Cecile de Volange (Uma Thruman); the ingénue daughter of her cousin, Madame de Volange (Swoosie Kurtz). This romantic espionage is designed to exact revenge on a former lover currently engaged to Cecile. A disreputable rake and a scoundrel, Valmont refuses Merteuil’s proposition at first, in favor of pursuing the spinsterish Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) who is currently in attendance as a guest at his aunt's house while her husband is abroad. To sweeten the deal, Merteuil offers one night of passion to Valmont as repayment for Cecile’s defilement.
Discovering a correspondence in which de Volanges warns de Tourvel against Valmont’s ‘evil nature’, the rake decides to accept Merteuil's wager; capitalizing on the awkward infatuation young Cecile has toward her music teacher, Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves). Recognizing the fallibility of a young girl in love, Valmont seduces Cecile with ease. She becomes pregnant, but suffers a miscarriage – thus avoid public scrutiny and scandal over their fleeting sexual affair.
Valmont next targets Madame de Tourvel with his oily charm. Though she at first resists him, here too the rake eventually succeeds. Tourvel becomes his devoted love slave – an unexpected entanglement that shakes Valmont’s deceptions to their very core. Merteuil, who has promised Valmont one night of her company for Cecile’s seduction, now refuses him her affections unless he disengages from Tourvel or faces the complete ruin of his reputation as a debaucher. In a brutal scene of romantic detachment, Valmont leaves Tourvel who falls fatally ill in his absence. Merteuil, who has taken Danceny as her lover, is openly confronted with Valmont’s demand that she fulfill her promise. Merteuil once again refuses and furthermore tells Danceny that Valmont has deflowered the fair Cecile.
Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel for her honor and wins, mortally wounding Valmont in the new fallen snow outside Merteuil’s home. Before expiring, Valmont confides to Danceny the letters Merteuil has written him about the plotting of Cecile’s seduction, thereby exposing the truth of the affair. He further instructs Danceny to deliver these letters to Tourvel who, upon reading them, dies. Determined to out this lecherous brood, the pure of heart Danceny publishes Merteuil’s letters for all to read, thereby destroying her confidences within the community and laying open her own reputation to absolute downfall and ridicule.
Dangerous Liaisons is a fascinating critique of utterly perverse 18th century ‘amusements’ for the idle rich. Stephen Frears’ direction is curiously rigid during the middle act of this story when he allows too many of screenwriter Hampton’s plot developments to ball together in one convoluted mess of meddling and misdirection. However, the exercise as a whole is solidly held together by stellar performances. Glenn Close and John Malkovich are a wicked pair; repugnant schemers that are nevertheless pleasurable to observe from a safe distance in all their sinful manipulations. These are two thespians at the top of their game, reveling in the merciless interplay of deceptions between their two characters. The rest of the cast, particularly Keanu Reeves, never quite measure up to either performance, but the film still sustains itself, thanks to James Acheson's lavish costume design and Philippe Rousselot's moody cinematography, both evoking the cloistered and claustrophobic atmosphere of a decaying upper class with resplendent production values.
Dangerous Liaisons takes a quantum leap forward on Blu-ray. It wasn't hard to do. Warner's DVD, released at the start of the digital craze all the way back in 1997 was a disaster, heavily marred by digital anomalies (edge enhancement, aliasing) and a barrage of 'age related' nicks chips and scratches that left most of us wondering where in the world had Warner Bros. been storing these film elements. But now Warner has finally gone back to the drawing board on this exceptionally fine film. Predictably, the Blu-ray's 1080p image pops. Not only does the image sharpen up with an exceptional gain in fine details, but the contrast levels also improve. We finally get to appreciate Rousselot's gorgeous cinematography in all its flourish.
Flesh tones are appropriately pale, exposing the heavy period makeup worn by the actors. One of the most remarkable things I noted on reviewing this disc is how lush and vibrant the greenery was throughout the film and how subtly nuanced the palace interiors were. While all of the interiors looked rather monochromatic (in a neutral brownish tone) on the DVD, the Blu-ray reveals variations and textures in wood grain, and fabrics in wall and home furnishings. I also thought the blood spilled against the white snow after Danceny's duel was quite dramatic. Bottom line: if you're a fan of this film then you're in for a visual treat with this disc.
The audio is a tad more problematic. Although it’s much cleaner in 5.1 DTS it still remains less than clear in a few key sequences where hushed whispers are played out behind raised fingers or clenched hand fans. Once again, Warner has dissed us on the extras. We get Stephen Frears doing an audio commentary and trailers and that's about it. For shame!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)