Taglines: Lust. Seduction. Revenge. The Game As You’ve Never Seen It Played Before.
In 18th century France, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont play a dangerous game of seduction. Valmont is someone who measures success by the number of his conquests and Merteuil challenges him to seduce the soon to be married Cecile de Volanges and provide proof in writing of his success. His reward for doing so will be to spend the night with Merteuil. He has little difficulty seducing Cecile but what he really wants is to seduce Madame de Tourvel. When Merteuil learns that he has actually fallen in love with her, she refuses to let him claim his reward for seducing Cecile. Death soon follows.
Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 American historical drama film based upon Christopher Hampton’s play Les liaisons dangereuses, which in turn was a theatrical adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
The film was directed by Stephen Frears. The performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, the costume design by James Acheson, and the screenplay by Christopher Hampton, garnered critical acclaim. Swoosie Kurtz, Mildred Natwick and Peter Capaldi appeared in supporting roles, as did the young, and then-relatively unknown, actors Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture; it won those for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction. At the 61st Academy Awards, Dangerous Liaisons won three Oscars out of seven nominations, for Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton), Best Costume Design (James Acheson), and Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig and Gérard James). Its four unsuccessful nominations were for Best Actress (Glenn Close), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Pfeiffer), Best Original Score (George Fenton), and the Academy Award for Best Picture. Director Stephen Frears and lead actor John Malkovich were not nominated.
At the 43rd British Academy Film Awards, Michelle Pfeiffer won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Christopher Hampton won for Best Screenplay. The film received a further eight nominations, in the categories of Best Direction (Stephen Frears), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Close), Best Cinematography (Philippe Rousselot), Best Costume Design (Acheson), Best Original Film Score (Fenton), Best Editing (Mick Audsley), Best Make Up Artist (Jean-Luc Russier) and Best Production Design (Craig).
Film Review for Dangerous Liaisons
In the high-stakes sport of extreme stage acting, Janet McTeer and Liev Schreiber are champion cliff divers. Give them an emotional precipice to jump from, and they’ll soar through the air and stick the landing. Think of Ms. McTeer’s dawning, devastating disillusionment as the pet wife in “A Doll’s House,” or Mr. Schreiber having the mother of all meltdowns in “Talk Radio.” Or Ms. McTeer competing with a rainstorm and winning as the title character of “Mary Stuart.” And Mr. Schreiber casting a slime of moral pollution over everything that moves as Iago in “Othello.”
I could dwell on those performances endlessly. Unfortunately, my immediate duty compels me to consider these figures of natural grandeur in the state of unnatural captivity into which they have been penned in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which opened on Sunday night at the Booth Theater, a production during which you pray for their deliverance.
You see, Christopher Hampton’s adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel of nasty musical beds in ancien régime France takes place amid a thin, rarefied air that is as much perfume as oxygen. It demands that its duplicitous characters — and especially the aristocratic manipulators in chief at its center — be as exquisitely arch and artificial as their environment.
When this play was first seen on Broadway in 1987, in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Howard Davies (a director of novelistic finesse who died last week), Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman slithered into its leading roles with the avidity of sleek, sexy foxes in a henhouse. In the same parts, Ms. McTeer and Mr. Schreiber come across as magnificent bulls who have strayed into a Limoges china shop.
They are portraying the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, conspirators in crimes of the — well, not the heart so much as what lies below the waist, though hearts are broken in the process. Former and perhaps future lovers, they engage in sexual conquest as a competition in score settling and military strategizing, and pride themselves on being able to charm the chemise off anybody.
Laclos’s epistolary novel has a chilling, claustrophobic elegance. In adapting it to the stage, Mr. Hampton opened up the events described into a luxurious indoor battlefield, in which combatants exchange brittle epigrams and coded innuendos. Spoken in English, with plummy accents to match, “Liaisons” is in danger of sounding like one of those racy London drawing room comedies of yesteryear, with titles that lean heavily on words like “scandal” and “indiscretion.”
Directed by Josie Rourke, this latest “Liaisons,” a production of the Donmar Warehouse in London, falls into the trap of such broadness early and lies there, gesticulating madly, for more than two and a half hours. Occasionally something like real feeling raises its startled head — especially in the second act, when Valmont falls in love despite himself. But such twinges of authentic emotion are more disruptive than illuminating.
It appears to have been Ms. Rourke’s intention to create a historical distance between then and now, perhaps as a means of justifying the high floridity of what follows. When first seen, Tom Scutt’s grand salon has a look of cobwebbed desuetude, with its peeling walls and furniture sheathed in dusty plastic.
Then out of the shadows (Mark Henderson did the expert lighting), rather like the reanimated royal court in the opera “The Ghosts of Versailles,” step the play’s cast of characters, in ravishing period garb (also by Mr. Scutt). The female ensemble members circulate singing creepy baroque-style “oohs” (the music is by Michael Bruce), and hopes are kindled that this might be a spooky deluxe treat for the Halloween season.
Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Keanu Reeves, Mildred Natwick, Uma Thurman, Peter Capaldi, Valerie Gogan, Laura Benson
Screenplay by: Christopher Hampton
Production Design by: Stuart Craig
Cinematography by: Philippe Rousselot
Film Editing by: Mick Audsley
Costume Design by: James Acheson
Set Decoration by: Gérard James
Art Direction by: Gavin Bocquet, Gérard Viard
Music by: George Fenton
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release Date: December 16, 1988