Dangerous Liaisons opens, rather interestingly, with two concurrent scenes. We cut between two very similar sequences: one which centres on the Marquise de Merteuil, and another which follows the Vicomte de Valmont. Both allow us a glimpse of a typical morning for our two heroes (if we can call them that…to refer to them instead as objects of our lurid fascination would perhaps be more appropriate). We watch intently, already drawn to a world so different to our own; a world in which minions wait on one’s hand and foot, and wigs are coiffed with great dexterity and apparent expertise.
Upon deeper examination though, two central ideas of the film actually emerge from these straightforward and almost inconsequential opening moments. Firstly, it can be interpreted an exposition of the “war” to come. Each time I see Dangerous Liaisons, I am struck strongly by this sense of the two characters, in their respective homes and among their respective servants, being ritualistically readied for an ensuing battle of the sexes. Secondly, and arguably more obviously, we are overcome by the decadence of the idle rich in pre-revolutionary France.
Indeed, it is perhaps this tedious excess that seems to fuels the former battle; out of apparent boredom, these two characters relentlessly scheme and meddle in the business of whoever and whatever appeals to their twisted little hearts. Their lives are an endless parade of pain and manipulation, and the deception of everyone around them a skill which they have toiled to perfect.
The film centres around several such episodes. In a nutshell: Mme de Merteuil vows to ridicule an ex-lover and employs the services of the Vicomte, an old flame, to assist her in this noble task. The two eventually concoct a little plan corrupt a young lady whom said ex plans to marry. Meanwhile, Valmont has set his sights on the beautiful and famously virtuous Présidente de Tourvel, whose husband is very conveniently abroad. This is much to the incredulity of Merteuil, who is apparently so bemused by the idea that she offers herself as a reward to Valmont if he can perform and prove this successful conquest.
Those of you that have yet to see this movie may be thinking: why exactly would a rompish and rather dirty little tale translate at all well onto the screen? And yet it really does — in fact, it still never ceases to amaze me how skilfully Hampton and Frears have turned this enormous epistolary novel into a living, breathing work of cinema. After a while we almost come to accept the delectably dreadful pair of Merteuil and Valmont; we realise also that the world that surrounds them is almost as utterly fraudulent.
No doubt you can imagine the outcome of all this. To quote the brilliant Bill, the two’s endless and despicable display leaves them “in blood stepped in so far” — and, like the eponymous warrior king, their circumstances can only get worse. What begins as two dastardly libertines fooling around suddenly, and quite dramatically, descends into high tragedy. During the last act, each scene seems to be followed by one even more wretched than the previous. Tensions too run stiflingly high as our heroes hurtle ever closer towards their ferocious ends.
One of the most fantastic scenes in Dangerous Liaisons is when Valmont is forced to leave Madame de Tourvel. He is made by Merteuil to realise his love for Tourvel and, while he cannot admit to this, the idea is clearly authenticated by his actions which follow. He goes to his lover and to her every plea and protestation simply replies “it’s beyond my control”. The beauty of these empty words (which, incidentally, he has been armed with by the Marquise) is that they are never delivered the same way twice: Malkovich repeats these words in tones of fury, regret, dejection and brutality.
The tragedy is the fact that it really is “beyond his control” — his fundamental vanity, played to particularly by the devious Merteuil, drives his actions. It is indeed beyond Valmont’s control, because the idea of falling in love is something which he truly does not dare accept.
The end of Dangerous Liaisons is a bit of a mystery. As he lies dying, Valmont seems to reveal remorse about the path he has chosen in life. Finally, he requests a simple favour from his murderer: to read and to circulate the (tellingly diabolic) correspondence between Merteuil and himself. One cannot be certain of the truth; has Valmont seen the light? Or does he want an immortal advantage over his equally abhorrent foe?
Whatever his intentions were though, the Marquise de Merteuil does indeed end up thoroughly ruined. The once respectable Marquise is welcomed at the opera with hisses and boos, and must retreat to the seclusion of her home. Sitting at her mirror once more, we see her permanently collected calm absolutely shattered. As she wipes away the powder on her face and the rouge on her lips, we see also the many years of flawless deceit disappearing before our eyes.