Set in 18th century France, the film centers on the perverted friendship of the Marquise de Merteuil (Close) and the Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich). Both are ruthless, wealthy, bored and full of lust – and used to be lovers. The focal point of the movie is a bet between the two. If Valmont can seduce the virtuous and happily married Madame de Tourvel (Pfeiffer), the Marquise will grant him a night of love, something they haven’t shared for some time. What neither of them anticipates is that Valmont will fall in love with Madame de Tourvel. When he does, it riles the jealousy of the Marquise, who secretly feels more for him than for any other man. What comes next is a deadly series of betrayals and deceptions.
Glenn Close and John Malkovich are excellent. Their performances are subtle, so that all the changes that come over them and all the inner struggles they experience show up in nuances of facial expressions and gestures. They make the movie riveting.
Director: Stephen Frears
In Theaters: Wide
Runtime: 120 minutes
Studio: Warner Home Video
Continuing his incredibly diverse career, Stephen Frears made his first period piece with Dangerous Liaisons, working from a script by Christopher Hampton adapted from his own play which was itself adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’ novel. Set in France in the late 1700s, Liaisons is a wicked tale of the games of sex and power played by the nobility. Glenn Close portrays the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, who recruits her ex-lover and notorious seducer Vicomte Sebastien de Valmont (John Malkovich) to get revenge by seducing the young Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). But first, Valmont has another conquest on his mind, in the form of the married and well-mannered Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer).
The two of them embark on a labyrinth of power moves and sexual conquests, destroying anyone who gets in their way before realizing that their true battle is with each another. Liaisons strikes a potent balance of comedy and drama, with plenty of incredible sharp and humorous scenes to go along with the incredible emotional ones. There’s a modern quality to the writing that never falls into the banality that can often hinder films set in this time period; instead it feels alive and exciting.
You can tell that Malkovich was having a ball with his character and his charisma is infectious, driving the whole picture with a kind of charm and energy that makes the time fly by. He isn’t a particularly handsome man, but somehow he is able to exude this sexual charge that makes it easy to see how the man is so capable of bringing women to their knees around him, and he’s matched by the icy power of Close’s Merteuil.
This is Glenn Close doing what she does best, a performance built from the inside out, where the further we go along the more layers start to unfold. Merteuil is one of the best characters of her long and illustrious career, a woman obsessed with having all of the cards, sworn to to conquer and never be conquered. She creates a mysterious and fascinating character, drawing you in but never quite revealing her true self and always leaving you guessing.