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Thursday, April 26, 2018

Dangerous Liaisons

Every once in a while a movie comes along that is perfect--every beat is just right, every nuance satisfying, every performance fascinating, the look breathtaking. Dangerous Liaisons is that for me. I remember the first time I saw it, way back in December 1988, how enchanted I was, and not just because it was the first time I saw Uma Thurman's breasts.

Directed by Stephen Frears, Dangerous Liaisons was based on a play by Christopher Hampton that was in turn based on a French novel. It's set in pre-Revolution France, and you can see why there was a revolution (one might malevolently imagine these characters being carted to the guillotine some years later). Only one of the characters is good, and she dies, but we watch the villains and snicker when they get their comeuppance.

Glenn Close is the center of the film. She's a divorced Marquise who spends most of her free time scheming against others. Her favorite word, she says, is cruelty. A former lover and now partner in skulduggery is John Malkovich, as Vicomte Valmont, a libertine who is an avid seducer. Close would like to get back at her ex-husband, who is going to marry the virginal Thurman, fresh out of a convent, and wants Malkovich to deflower her. He thinks it's too easy. What he wants is to seduce Michelle Pfeiffer, a pious woman, the most unattainable woman around.

The cat-and-mouse by Close and Malkovich is fun to watch. Close bets Malkovich he can't get in Pfeiffer's knickers, and promises a return to her bed if he does. He will spoil Thurman, just to spite her mother (Swoozie Kurtz), who has been spreading (true) gossip about him to Pfeiffer. Frears makes some of it farcical, with people hiding in adjoining rooms or just eluding detection.

The movie is very funny, but also tragic, as Close and Malkovich leave a body count. In movies like this, I always marvel at how the ruling class did nothing but take strolls through the garden, have tea, and talk behind each's others backs. Close will renege on her bet and Malkovich will take revenge, and the final shot is Close removing her makeup--her mask--to reveal who she really is.

I thought Close should have won the Oscar that year (Jodie Foster did for The Accused, but she ended up winning again three years later) and Pfeiffer was also nominated. Some may think that Malkovich is either miscast or overacts, but I think it's ingenious casting. In the Milos Forman version of the story, Valmont (which came out a year later) Valmont was played by Colin Firth, a classically handsome man. Malkovich, who is anything but classically handsome, is more convincing as a seducer--he does it through his words, not his face. There's something perversely pleasurable about the slightly cross-eyed Malkovich sleeping his way across Paris.

Dangerous Liaisons is the kind of movie I could watch every year.

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