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USA/UK 1988
Directed by
Stephen Frears
120 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Dangerous Liaisons

Lavish costume dramas are usual the terrain of European film-makers but English director Stephen Frears has done a fine job with this classic 18th century tale of the cruel games played by a pair of bored aristocrats (who in a few years would have lost their heads to the guillotine). Of course the originary texts, Francois Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" and Christopher Hampton's play based on it, provide a superior starting point

Glenn Close plays the beautiful but jealous Marquise de Merteuil who challenges her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce the virginal Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) before she is wed in an arranged marriage to one of Merteuil’s former lovers.  To Valmont, a notorious Lothario, this is easy pickings so he also wagers the Marquise that he will be able to bed the very religious Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) and demands the Marquise's favours if he is successful. In the course of carrying out his plan Valmont unexpectedly falls in love with his prey, a succumbing which exposes the Marquise’s deep-seated jealousy with tragic results.

Hampton's Oscar-winning script is deliciously acid and the performances from an unlikely cast are strong, Malkovich, switching from silken charm to snarling viciousness in the blink of an eye, is at his reptilian best whilst Close, even if she is not very satisfactory in the beauty stakes, is perfect as the deceitful Marquise, both actors clearly benefitting from their extensive theatre experience. Michelle Pfeiffer is surprisingly effective but the role of a young mademoiselle is a bit of a stretch for Thurman who is at best, passable. And why Keanu Reeves of all people was chosen to play Cécile's true love, Le Chevalier Danceny, is a mystery as he gives the film a real limp.  The production design is superb (the film also won Oscars for costumes and art direction) and Frears who hitherto had directed small English art-house films, notably My Beautiful Laundrette (1985), is in full command of his material.

FYI: For a much weaker rendition of Laclos' story see Valmont with Colin Friels and Annette Bening in the leads. A much more lavish film, although it actually started production first It was not released until the following year when it bombed critically and commercially. Ironically, it was directed by Czech-born director Milos Forman who had had such success with the lavish big budget 18th century biopic, Amadeus (1984).




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