(1988) I've already watched two other film adaptations of Choderlos de Laclos's 18th-century novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and know of at least two additional cinematic versions, but this Stephen Frears's directed motion picture - from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton based on his stage play - heightens the humor without losing the underlying tragic tone and texture of drama. The settings are splendidly elegant; the costuming elaborate and busty.
In Paris, responding to the summons of Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close), the malevolent Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (John Malkovich) arrives and is introduced to Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz) and her delectably innocent daughter Cécile (Uma Thurman), fresh from the convent. Alone in conference with Valmont, Isabelle ("a virtuoso of deceit" whose motto is "win or die") requests a favor from him - "Love and revenge. Two of your favorites" - to extract vengeance against Comte de Bastide, who overthrew her and went off with Valmont's mistress, by deflowering Cécile before she is to marry Bastide, away in Corsica for a year.
"Too easy," replies Valmont: "I have my reputation to think of." Instead, he tells her of another, more demanding challenge - "To seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervor, and the happiness of her marriage" - the gorgeous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), upon whom he desires to improve his immorality, who is spending her days, while her husband is away, at Valmont's aunt's chateau during August. After regarding his stratagem as "humiliating if you fail and commonplace if you succeed," Isabelle offers herself as a reward for his success, setting as terms written proof of his conquest. "I always thought betrayal was your favorite word," says Valmont. "Cruelty," replies Isabelle, "has a nobler ring to it."
In an attempt to impress Mme de Tourvel with a contrast to his reputation for depravity (communicated to her through an acquaintance), Valmont rescues Armand, a poor peasant with a large family, from destitution. Through guile he blackmails Julie, Mme de Tourvel's maid and his attendant Azolan's temporary sweetheart, to obtain all correspondences to and from Mme de Tourvel. Next he throws himself at her mercy: "Please, help me!"
Declaring that through her goodness she has inspired the engendering of love from his heart for the first time, rather than lust, Valmont swears he only wishes to be worthy of deserving her: "All I want is to serve you." Her response: then depart, though he does extract from her a promise to correspond. From Valmont she receives letters he composes on his secretary's naked back (when Emilie turns over she becomes his courtesan).
Back in Paris, Cécile has become infatuated with her young music teacher, Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves); but because of his apparent inability to "stiffen his resolve," Isabelle has a low estimation of his becoming Cécile's spoiler: "Like most of the intellectuals, he's intensely stupid." Confiding to Mme de Volanges of Cécile's secret liaison with Danceny, Isabelle recommends to the mother having the girl sent to Mme Rosamonde's to keep her safe before the wedding to Bastide; however, this will place the girl in proximity to Valmont.
From her years of experience, Mme Rosamonde (Mildred Natwick) offers up her understanding of the human condition: Men, such as her nephew, are made happy by what they feel, while for women happiness comes from what they give.
Valmont obtains the key to Cécile's bedchamber, promising to bring her letters from Danceny, with which he unlocks her treasury. When Cécile writes to Isabelle of her violation, the Marquise advises her to continue her "instruction" under Valmont, convince her mother she's broken off entirely from Danceny, and agree to the arranged marriage. Enjoying and appreciating her education, Cécile gives Valmont her undivided attention as he begins the next lesson: "I think we might begin with a few Latin terms." Juxtaposed to this scene is a priest speaking Latin in a religious service.
Following his astonishing, "awesome encounter" - Mme de Tourvel finally acquiesces: "No more refusals, no more regrets" - the story discards ("It's beyond my control") its amusing mask of comedy; Isabelle opines that regret is "an essential component of happiness." Single combat between Isabelle and Valmont becomes all out war with innocent victims as collateral damage.
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