‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’, said Oscar Wilde.
The 18th century French novel ‘Les Liaisons dangereuses’ was born before Wilde yet the statement applies to it perfectly. The movie version of this book is ‘DangerousLiaisons’, where the vicissitudes of the story and dialogue are comparable to Oscar Wilde's 'The picture of Dorian Gray.' In fact, there was a brief moment when I debated if this is even better than Wilde’s famous work.
Set in early 18th century France, the movie opens on ‘immoral’ high ground – the popular socialite, Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) wants to avenge her abandoned lover, Bastide and seeks the help of the corrupt Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich).
The count has to seduce the virginal fiancée of Bastide, Cécile (Uma Thurman) before the marriage. The unscrupulous Count Vicomte thinks that game to be trifle and suggests going in pursuit of a married woman, Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). The Marquise agrees provided he brings back proof of his accomplishments in order to spend one glorious night with her.
What follows are the adventures of the sexual predator, Vicomte who plays women as pawns in his game of chess. He easily conquers the chaste Cecile but Madame Tourvel proves more challenging to him. Throughout this game of decadence, the Marquise is supportive of him as well as to other women by presenting a façade of a malevolent chaperone. The moral ambiguity of this game is revealed in a dialogue by
Marquise to Vicomte ‘When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn't pleasure I was after, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.”
The manipulation by the countess is unlike Scarlett O’Hara. While Scarlett’s justification is never to be poor again and to restore the grandeur of days gone by, the countess seeks this game to extract vengeance on men who cross her path. Either ways both women resort to the only methods that are available to them at that period of time - cunning manipulation of men.
Glen Close is superb as the middle-aged countess, whose face expresses immense depth of emotions that most modern actresses are incapable of. She portrays the immoral Marquise by a mere change in her eyes, sometimes revealing the love/hate relationship she has with Vicomte and other times as a beautiful and intelligent woman caught in a society in 18th century France where women are supposed to listen to their husbands and act docile. She portrays the moral ambiguity so subtly that you are caught between appreciating and condoning her.
The movie reaches a crescendo when a triumphant Vicomte produces the evidence but the countess refuses him the one night she promised since she cannot face to be second fiddle, given that the count had fallen in love with the married woman. Does Marquise really love Vicomte or merely considers him a worthy rival? Who would get the last word in this battle of the sexes? Does Marquise manage to destroy Vicomte or does the count get an upper hand? Watch this movie to seek your own answers, which might not be the same as the person next to you.