Monday, March 29, 2021

Oscar Film Journal: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Welcome to yet another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Traveling back to the 1980s, today I'll be talking about a lurid period piece directed by Stephen Frears, based on a play, which was in turn based on a 1782 French novel, Dangerous Liaisons.  Starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, and two young up-and-comers named Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves, Dangerous Liaisons is the tale of a former couple whose only pleasure in life is derived from sleeping around and destroying lives.  Glenn Close's character the Marquise de Merteuil is out for revenge against her ex, who left her for a young virgin he intends to marry (Thurman).  She enlists Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) to seduce the young girl and ruin the reputations of both her and her fiance.  But Valmont has designs on someone else, Marie de Tourvel, the devoutly religious wife of a member of Parliament; to him the young virgin isn't a challenge, but a chaste married woman is a worthy conquest.  The two schemers enter into an arrangement - if Valmont can produce written proof that he's seduced Marie, the Marquise will agree to sleep with him.  Thus begins this saga of malevolence and deception, as Valmont seduces not only Madame de Tourvel, but also the young virgin, while the Marquise gets her claws into the virgin's young lover, Le Chevalier Danceny (Reeves).  The philandering and strumpetry are on full display from these two awful people.
The film is stylishly directed, shot on location in actual historic French buildings to give everything an authentic feel.  The performances are all first-rate, the two leads especially striking a delicate balance between toxicity and playfulness.  Glenn Close relishes her character's spiteful manipulations, until things start to go south, where she becomes a snarling panther, hellbent on destroying her co-conspirator.  John Malkovich (somehow ignored by the Academy for this performance) is reptilian and inevitable, using his considerable charm to take whomever he wishes, but unexpectedly finds he has real feelings for Marie, and the conflict tears him apart.  Michelle Pfeiffer has the thankless task of playing the straight woman, as it were, but delivers an understated, relatable performance as the victim of all these machinations, genuinely falling for Valmont, absolutely decimated when the other shoe drops.  

Dangerous Liaisons manages to stay pretty light on its feet in spite of its focus on two irredeemably malignant characters; Close and Malkovich have a mischievous banter when they're getting along, clearly very much enjoying the exploration of this dysfunctional partnership.  When they turn on each other the tone becomes frighteningly vindictive; there's nothing quite as ugly as a pair of life-wreckers targeting one another.  It's a strange phenomenon to actually be entertained watching two villains get up to no good.  Of course the entire story stems from the fact that both characters view love as a sign of weakness, and thus can't admit that they love each other or anyone else.  Literally the only satisfaction they glean is in hurting other people.  It's an easy scenario from which to draw real-world parallels; there's sadly a lot of this phenomenon happening in everyday life, all around us.

I found Dangerous Liaisons surprisingly riveting, boosted by excellent performances from the principle actors; Close and Malkovich especially seemed to be having a ball being bad.  Fun can be infectious, even when it's the evil kind.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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