Dangerous Liaisons (1988)


Valmont (1989)

from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

I think I've now seen five different movie versions of this story, as well as a stage adaptation which I saw when I was living in London in the late 80s or early 90s.  The original source work is a French novel written just before the revolution, a genuine period piece with a contemporary look at the mores of that decadent era of irony and pomp and their much celebrated "reason". At the time this story was written, Marie Antoinette was queen of France, and the king was, as Woody Allen has said, "One of the big Louies". I think this one was Louis XVI, although like Woody I can never remember how high they go. I think they managed to get through about 150 years with only three Louies there at the end, because Louis the Fourteenth and Fifteenth between them ruled for what seemed like forever. Number fourteen ruled so long that he outlived his children and grandchildren, and was succeeded by his great grandson. Then fifteen himself lived long enough to be succeeded by his grandson. Ol' sixteen might have challenged them except that he was was not permitted to die of natural causes, unless one considers it perfectly natural to have one's head removed by a sharp instrument.

It was, as Dickens would point out, the best and worst of times, the age of hope, and the age of despair. He might have added that it began as the age of flamboyance and arrogance, and would soon emerge as the age of comeuppance. But the relevant point in this digression is that this story is not from a hypothetical historical novel about 1782, but was written by someone who saw that gaudy time first hand, and who knew how the aristocrats thought and lived. If for no other reason, you should watch this movie to be educated in that process.

The revolution was only a few years in the future when this book was penned, but the future power of the proletariat seems far removed from the goings-on here. In the basic story, two aristocrats are bored with their lives, and take as their hobby the manipulation and destruction of the lives of others. This calls for intrigue, mind games, power games, or whatever will relieve their tedium and give them a feeling of complete and prissy superiority. The Marquise and the Viconte were once lovers themselves, and we wonder why they didn't continue, inasmuch as they seem to have so many common interests.

Their latest schemes involve the deflowering of a virgin to avenge alleged slights committed by her husband-to-be, and the ultimate conquest - the seduction of the most beautiful, most chaste, and kindest woman in France. At least the Viscount cannot be accused of ducking a challenge! In the course of their intrigues, the Marquise and the Viscount eventually turn from allies to sworn enemies. 


Uma Thurman exposed her breast is a lengthy scene.

Valerie Gogan did a nude scene, exposing her breats clearly.

An unknown woman exposed her behind while Valmont wrote on it.

I rather like both of the big-budget screen versions of this novel that were made in the late 80's. This particular version is Christopher Hampton's screen adaptation of his own stage play. The other is "Valmont", a Milos Forman film with a slightly different take on the story. The characters in "Liaisons" are mostly interested in winning through cold calculation, while the same characters in "Valmont" are equally interested in amusement.

This version has lots of star power, with Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer, John Malkovich, and Uma Thurman, but it lacks something the other movie has: passion. When Glenn Close and John Malkovich play their wicked games of sexual intrigue, it is all about cerebral conquest and calculation and power. It is hard to picture either of them filled with sexual rapture, and equally hard to picture anybody filled with rapture at the prospect of bedding them. 

Colin Firth and Annette Bening, playing the same roles in the other movie, are lively, attractive, sexual, likeable rogues. They may indulge in power games, but it is apparent that they enjoy their encounters. I especially liked Firth in the title role as a Valmont whose company would be great fun at any occasion, and whose seductiveness owes at least as much to his innate charm as to his conniving. Old ladies and children like him as much as his lovers. Malkovich, on the other hand, carried a dour, superior presence which could spook children and animals, and carried himself with an insincerity so obvious as to fool only those who cared to be fooled.

Both Valmonts were fine performances, but Firth's Valmont is a guy you'd have a drink with. If Malkovich bought you a drink, you'd switch glasses on him.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen anamorphic, 1.85:1, and a fill screen version

  • no significant features

The other three versions that I mentioned were untimely ripped from their original time and/or place and brought into modern times. Roger Vadim did a French version in the late 50's which is filled with beatnik, Godardian, new-wave hipster drollery and a progressive jazz score. Most of you are probably familiar with "Cruel Intentions," the Sarah Gellar version that takes place in 1990's America. The fifth version was "Manchester Prep," a slipshod low budget film which is not the same story, but features the same characters as "Cruel Intentions".

Dangerous Liaisons is the most highly regarded by critics and IMDb viewers who seem to think it is more faithful to the original work, but I like "Valmont" better because it is not so self-important, and because I see with modern eyes, which find it more credible that people were seduced by Colin Firth and Annette Bening than by John Malkovich and Glenn Close.

The Critics Vote

  • Ebert 3/4

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 7.7, classic level, flirting with their Top 250.
  • With their dollars ... it took in $34 million domestic 
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a B-. Intelligent, well-acted, witty, but passionless and joyless.

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