Cast: Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Keannu Reeves, Uma Thurman
Based on a play by Christopher Hampton, Dangerous Liaisons features one of the finest acting masterclasses committed to screen, in my view.
Glenn Close, the Marquise de Merteuil, a French aristocrat, in her boudoir, practises, in a large, ornate mirror, the haughty, knowing facial expressions she will use in the high society circles in which she presides as a woman of the world not to be crossed. A woman who is privy to the scandals and secrets of the nobility they would rather were not brought into the light. She will look into that mirror again, at the end, to brutally remove the heavy face paint that is her makeup. In harshly rubbing off the colours she seems to want to erase the darkness of her own soul that has led her to disaster. It’s one of the most awfully magnificent denouements (literally) in modern cinema. A lifetime of regret, tragedy and devious plans shattered will have passed, in just a matter of months, between the two reflections.
But at the start of the film she is totally in command of her own life and more importantly for her, the lives of those around her. Her elaborate toilette is completed by a bevy of bowing maids and footmen. In another, similarly grand home, John Malkovich (Vicomte de Valmont) is similarly prepared for his day of social interactions. They live and move in a world of carriages, gorgeous, sumptuous costumes, dazzling jewels and mannered conversation in which everything said means something else.
The two are on /off lovers but more than that, they get their kicks out of manipulating those around them, drawing them into illicit sexual liaisons for the fun of it. They get a perverse pleasure in ruining lives and sharing details of their own misdeeds.
Close has never been more venal under a facade of genteel sophistication.
Malkovich is elegant, sleazy and as vicious. The pair understand each other’s malicious machinations. “Cruelty has a noble ring to it” she observes, salivating over the idea. She wants revenge on an ex lover. She picks Valmont to carry it out; to seduce the intended bride of her former lover who humiliated her by running off with the mistress of Valmont, so that the ex lover discovers, too late, on his wedding night that innocent convent girl he has chosen for his wife has already been deflowered. Valmont sees that job as too easy for his seduction talents. He has a better plan. He has set his sights on the impossibly virtuous Madame de Tourvel, (Michelle Pfeiffer) who believes fervently in the sanctity of her marriage. He plans to break down her defences, while her husband is away on business and show that he can seduce the most pure hearted of women. The Marquise likes the idea. She demands proof of his success, in writing. If he provides this he gets the reward of a night with her, for old times sake when they loved each other.
They scheme and plot with relish. People’s lives are a game to them, to be played ruthlessly, like brutal chess. And they are not immune to double crossing each other. But when Valmont begins to develop genuine feelings for Pfeiffer, the insecurities and jealousy she refuses to acknowledge lead to all out war between the pair.
Malkovich is not an obvious leading man or dream Don Juan but here he has such a rakish charm and insouciant swagger he is believably irresistible. He goes toe to toe with Close in every scene, especially as they begin to turn on each other. Pfeiffer has the hardest role, perhaps in playing goodness and virtue which are less fun to do and more difficult to pull off. She does it very well and like Malkovich was Oscar nominated. But, ultimately, this is Close’s film. She devours every quotable line (‘Those who are most worthy of love are never made happy by it.’ ’ Illusions are by their nature sweet.’) and scene with the insatiable appetite of a predator. How she didn’t win the Oscar for this performance is one of the Academy’s more puzzling decisions.
I recommend this film highly.