“Dangerous Liaisons” is a tale of desire and deceit for the ages
A new film adaptation testifies to the enduring allure of the French epistolary novel of 1782
Once lovers, now partners in crime, a privileged couple entrap vulnerable young women in a web of sexual exploitation and dependency that wrecks their victims’ lives. They do it for kicks, for revenge, out of hubris and malice—but also from a mutual fascination that has a twisted kinship with love. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, was a succès de scandal in 1782: the book sold out in two weeks and 15 pirated editions appeared that year. Ever since, outraged moralists have asked why Laclos’s pitiless tale of seduction, deception and betrayal has such a mesmeric allure. Could men, even women, truly behave with such cynical, sadistic selfishness?
Laclos was a mid-ranking artillery officer from the minor nobility who served Napoleon after barely surviving the French revolution. His first and only novel tells its story in letters (a convention of the age that it brilliantly exploits). Jaded aristocratic roués, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont conspire to ensnare the bodies and control the minds of the innocent, married Madame de Tourvel and Cécile de Volanges, a teenager. Their dupes fall into disgrace and despair: collateral damage in the love-hate bond that ties the scheming pair.
Merteuil and Valmont wield desire and deceit like duelling rapiers and, eventually, turn their weapons on each other. For the libertine misogynist Valmont, “to bring a woman to heel anything goes”, while the clever, bitter widow Merteuil seeks power as her charms fade. A woman alone, she writes, needs “a writer’s wit and the gifts of an actor”; mature women must be “capable of creating a life of their own when nature begins to desert them”.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” still gives off a whiff of sulphur. In 1784 an English review of this “diabolical” story hoped that its atrocious “villainies” would be “consigned to that outer darkness to which they belong”. No chance: multiple reprints, translations and re-imaginings ensued. Even in 1959, Roger Vadim’s film faced a court case in France and was initially denied an export licence. Some adapters still refuse to follow Laclos’s merciless plot to its comfortless end.
The latest update, made for Netflix, comes from Rachel Suissa, a French actor-director. Her version (pictured top) follows the American movie of 1999, “Cruel Intentions” (pictured above), in transplanting the salon backbiting of pre-revolutionary Paris to a high-school setting. A stylish lycée in Biarritz, on the French Atlantic coast, hosts a gang of Instagram-obsessed wannabes, presided over by Vanessa Merteuil, a former child star played by Ella Pellegrini. Vanessa and Tristan (Simon Rérolle), a glamorous surfer, plot to assail the virtue of the affianced Célène (Paola Locatelli) and ex-convent girl Charlotte (Héloïse Janjaud). In this adolescent hothouse, a frantic quest for social-media celebrity takes the place of the honour and reputation that fuelled the intrigues of the ancien régime. As ultimate proof of their renown, the characters’ tally of followers punctuates the action.
Ms Suissa and her co-writer, Slimane-Baptiste Berhoun, map the novel’s epistolary buzz and sting of gossip onto a late-teenage emotional landscape defined by posts, texts, likes and follows. An engaging young cast and a knowing screenplay—studded with allusions to other pillars of the French canon, from a cute dog called Balzac to a school musical based on Madame de Lafayette’s “The Princess of Montpensier”—remind the viewer that manipulative cunning may arrive at a dismayingly early age.
In the novel Merteuil’s exposure and downfall involves not just public shaming at the theatre, and a punitive lawsuit, but a disfiguring bout of smallpox that leaves her blinded in one eye. Repentant Valmont, meanwhile, dies in a duel with Cécile’s suitor, the Chevalier Danceny, perhaps a passive suicide. Tourvel expires in misery: “I can feel nothing but despair, I am fit only to bury my head in the bottomless pit of night.”
The latest film is much less desolate, its pretty people in a pretty place suffering no such agonies. At the novel’s end, Laclos’s Danceny surveys “this accumulation of horrors”; in the new teen drama, a slick denouement wipes out pain just as the Atlantic breakers erase surfers’ footprints in the sand. For viewers who prefer the original’s bleaker vision, the outstanding movie that Stephen Frears directed from Christopher Hampton’s play in 1988—with Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman heading the cast—remains readily available. Indeed, the BBC has pointedly added it to the iPlayer platform. Touché. ■
“Dangerous Liaisons” is streaming on Netflix now
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