Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Dir. Stephen Frears. Starring John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer

Valmont (Malkovich) emotionally withdraws from as many situations as he can, not because “emotion is weakness” or some other flaccid cliche, but because it’s silly to be emotionally involved in a situation where only one of you is in real life. Valmont is in a stage play for the majority of the movie, performing the lines which only he has rehearsed. He directs an amusing little charade which requires him to observe and improvise with a rapid-fire finesse. He sees his man, Azolan (Peter Capaldi), wooing Cecile’s maid, Julie (Valerie Gogan). Valmont tells Azolan that he’ll be popping into his bedroom around 2:00 so that he can interrupt some sexual congress; having done so, he will blackmail Julie into turning over virtuous Madame de Tourvel’s (Pfeiffer) correspondence for the remainder of his stay. Having written the scene, he then stars in it, completing the cycle of write-rehearse-perform; it happens just as Valmont plans, and more or less as we imagine, but with a few extra flourishes straight from Valmont. When he tells Julie, who is of course stark naked, that he’d hate to be forced to reveal her indiscretion to Tourvel, she stretches back onto the bed. He demurs, and makes it clear what his expectations are for her. He is a true four-quarter player.

The flaws of Dangerous Liaisons are the flaws of its characters, primarily that of its protagonist. Like Valmont, who looks at the world through a relentlessly predatory lens, the movie finds ways to ogle the female body without ever really forcing us to reckon with male physicality. One feels safe using the damning if old-fashioned phrase “the male gaze.” Valerie Gogan and Uma Thurman both do the full topless for the film, while you’d see more of Malkovich’s body if you caught him working out at the gym. It’s a disconnect in the film that really takes you outside of the story itself; you can practically hear the producers using the leverage of Uma Thurman’s newbie status to get her to take off her shirt for one scene. Valmont’s relationship with Cecile, short-lived and “educational” as it is for both parties, is absolutely the furthest from sexy in the film. (That’s no small thing, because there may not be a single sexy relationship in the entire film. I mean, I understand that’s the point, but no matter how you look at it the Valmont-Cecile coupling is not endearing) It begins with what’s pretty unambiguously a rape and continues on in half-naked fashion for a while, never really doing more than trying to titillate.

The movie’s other shared problem with Valmont has to do with its emotional deficiencies when it wants to finally get emotional. The single decent relationship is born out of the same species of rapacity that began Valmont’s dalliance with Cecile, but Valmont’s affair with Tourvel befuddles him because he comes to feel for her sincerely. Valmont’s heart is withdrawn until it’s not, and then once it’s on his sleeve he has no idea what to do with it. The movie is just as clueless. It tries out a few workable scenes, but none of them really hit home. The seething bad blood, the “I don’t really care what you do but let me elbow you in the ribs a little to show you how much I don’t care,” the sublimated love affair of the mind that Merteuil and Valmont have engaged in rather than expressing it in the physical realm they’re really more comfortable in: it’s all very planned. It’s almost a sign of strength for the film that it goes as long as it does with this ridiculous plot; it just can’t maintain the story with this last twist. No scene is more of a Whoopee cushion than the scene after Merteuil and Valmont share a parable about how to get rid of one’s lover. Having learned the phrase “It’s beyond my control,” Valmont gives his worst performance as he unwillingly dumps Tourvel. Christopher Hampton, whose work I’m usually pretty down with, turns what should be a powerful scene into a frothy little villanelle. In response to Tourvel’s sobbing misery, Valmont repeats the phrase over and over; it’s somehow even less affecting than it sounds. Similarly, Valmont’s benediction to Danceny (Keanu Reeves), who has just mortally wounded him in one of the stranger movie duels I’ve seen, is a little milquetoast. I was completely unaffected by Valmont’s death, and likewise by Tourvel’s. Both are copout deaths, ones that must happen because the movie doesn’t know what it would do if it had to hit 150 minutes.

The movie is, however, quite sure with what to do with its beginning. It’s a fairly simple start, one that’s classic period piece: Merteuil and Valmont get dressed. Frears is so into closeups in this movie—with this cast it’s entirely understandable—but he doesn’t limit himself to closeups of faces. There are closeups of wrists, of torsos, of buttons and gilt and lace. Merteuil and Valmont are actors before they are anything else; an actor needs his or her costume, makeup, hairstyle. Later on, after the two of them have broken with each other, the elaborate and assisted dressing takes on a new meaning. In one scene, Valmont tells her that he must have her, per the terms of their deal, or it will be war between them. One word will suffice, he says. Merteuil, damaged by how thoroughly (and guilelessly) Tourvel has put her hooks in him, responds with a cruel smile: “War.” And once it’s war, the costumes for actors become armor for soldiers.

John Malkovich is a singular actor, whose diction and mighty case of RFD make him very nearly unique among English-language film actors of the past forty years. He is also an unpredictable romantic lead, for even in his younger days “handsome” slips out of his grasp. It turns out to be inspired casting, because the differences between Valmont and a lesser Casanova are in his shameless persistence, his savage entrapments. He doesn’t have to be handsome to win women over, for he has charm on his side, or persuasion, or, in Cecile’s aforementioned case, an inability to hear the word “no.” He cops feels, steals hugs, and drops kisses on Tourvel, connecting himself with the physical intimacy she doesn’t have in her life. Malkovich makes each of those actions deeply awkward, and counterintuitively the awkwardness works. Tourvel is artless, and so artlessness is more likely to have an effect on her, especially because she has been warned by Cecile’s mother, Madame Volanges (Swoosie “Cruel Intentions cameo” Kurtz), that Valmont is an infamous roué. Glenn Close is an entirely different matter from Malkovich. Malkovich was known for his supporting roles in prestige dramas; Close was the second-most acclaimed actress of the 1980s. And where Malkovich has a little Cape buffalo in his performance, Close is entirely caracal or serval. In this movie filled with close-ups, Close makes more of hers than anyone else does. We watch the smile come off Merteuil’s face by millimeters over full seconds as she listens to Valmont describe Tourvel. The purely happy smiles doesn’t really exist in this movie for Close, but she counters with an arsenal of smiles which are each explosive and which have different calibers: a sinister smile, a warning smile, a threatening smile, an encouraging smile, an elegant smile, a challenging smile. When she went to Sunset Boulevard on Broadway with Christopher Hampton, she would sing: “We didn’t need words:/We had faces.” The film’s final scene proves her own ability to work without words. Having gone to the opera and then been booed mercilessly by the entire audience—Danceny has, on Valmont’s advice, published the correspondence which proves her depraved sensibilities—she returns home and begins to take off her makeup. Close, who was a little over forty when the film premiered, is older than her starring castmates by at least a few years; she has nearly twenty years on Reeves, for example, and more than that on Thurman. It shows in this scene, where she wipes off the white powder that conceals her age. She takes off the lipstick that has accented each of those smiles above. As she looks down into her mirror, she pauses. Her features are now uncovered, but her forehead still bears the last traces of the ghost-white face she wore out. The charm has gone from her face; everything coquettish or coy has been wiped away. Few actors can fill the screen with a face so hard. We cannot feel pity for her Merteuil, but in the last seconds before the fade to black, Close lets us understand her without speaking a word. There’s more Malkovich in this movie, and on the whole I think I even prefer his performance, but that last scene, with Close solo, is unparalleled in the film.

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