Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 American period romantic drama film directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his play Les liaisons dangereuses, which was itself adapted from the 18th-century French novel of the same name by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It stars Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Swoosie Kurtz, Mildred Natwick, Peter Capaldi, Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Stephen Frears|
|Screenplay by||Christopher Hampton|
|Based on||Les liaisons dangereuses|
|Music by||George Fenton|
|Edited by||Mick Audsley|
|Distributed by||Warner Bros.|
|Box office||$34.7 million|
Dangerous Liaisons was released theatrically on December 16, 1988, by Warner Bros. It received generally positive reviews from critics with praise for Close's and Pfeiffer's performances and the screenplay, production values and costumes. Although it was a moderate commercial success grossing $34.7 million against its $14 million budget, it was cited as a box office disappointment. The film received seven nominations at the 61st Academy Awards, including for Best Picture and won three: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design.
In pre-Revolution Paris, the Marquise de Merteuil plots revenge against her ex-lover, the Comte de Bastide, who has recently ended their relationship. To soothe her wounded pride and embarrass Bastide, she seeks to arrange the seduction and disgrace of his young virgin fiancée, Cécile de Volanges, who has only recently been presented to society after spending her formative years in the shelter of a convent.
Merteuil calls on the similarly unprincipled Vicomte de Valmont to do the deed. Valmont declines, as he is plotting a seduction of his own: Madame de Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament away in Corsica, who is currently a houseguest of Valmont's aunt, Madame de Rosemonde. Amused and incredulous at Valmont's hubris in pursuing the chaste, devoutly religious Tourvel, Merteuil ups the ante: if Valmont somehow succeeds in seducing Tourvel, and can furnish written proof, Merteuil will sleep with him as well. Never one to refuse a challenge, Valmont accepts.
Tourvel rebuffs all of Valmont's advances. Searching for leverage, he instructs his page Azolan to seduce Tourvel's maid Julie to gain access to Tourvel's private correspondence. One of the letters he intercepts is from Cécile's mother and Merteuil's cousin, Madame de Volanges, warning Tourvel that Valmont is a nefarious and untrustworthy individual. Valmont resolves to seduce Cécile after all, as revenge for her mother's accurate denunciation of him.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Cécile meets the charming and handsome Chevalier Raphael Danceny, who becomes her music teacher. They fall in love, with coaxing from Merteuil (who knows that Danceny, a poor commoner, can never qualify as a bona fide suitor).
Valmont gains access to Cécile's bedchamber on a false pretense, sexually assaults her, and blackmails her into sex as she pleads with him to leave. On the pretext of illness, Cécile remains locked in her chambers, refusing all visitors. A concerned Madame de Volanges calls upon Merteuil to speak to Cécile, who confides in her, naively assuming that Merteuil has her best interests at heart. Merteuil advises Cécile to welcome Valmont's advances; she says young women should take advantage of all the lovers they can acquire, in a society so repressive and contemptuous of women. The result is a "student–teacher" relationship; by day, Cécile is courted by Danceny, and each night she receives a sexual "lesson" from Valmont. In the meantime, Merteuil begins an affair with Danceny.
Meanwhile, Valmont somehow manages to win Tourvel's heart, but at a cost: the lifelong bachelor playboy falls in love. In a fit of jealousy, Merteuil mocks Valmont and threatens to trash his reputation as a carefree gigolo. She also refuses to honor her end of their agreement, since Valmont has no written proof that the relationship has been consummated. Valmont abruptly dismisses Tourvel with a terse excuse: "It is beyond my control." Meanwhile, after a night in Valmont's bed, Cécile miscarries his child.
Overwhelmed with grief and shame, Tourvel retreats to a monastery where her health deteriorates rapidly. Valmont warns Danceny of Merteuil's ulterior motives in seducing him; she retaliates by informing Danceny that Valmont has been sleeping with Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel, and mortally wounds him. With his dying breath, Valmont asks Danceny to communicate to Tourvel—by now near death—his true feelings for her. He gives Danceny his collection of intimate letters from Merteuil, and Danceny publishes them. All of Paris learns the full range of her schemes and depredations. Humiliated at the opéra by her former friends and sycophants, Merteuil flees Paris in disgrace.
- Glenn Close as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil
- John Malkovich as Vicomte de Valmont
- Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame Marie de Tourvel
- Uma Thurman as Cécile de Volanges
- Swoosie Kurtz as Madame de Volanges, mother of Cécile and cousin to Merteuil
- Keanu Reeves as Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, courtier to Cécile
- Mildred Natwick as Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont's aunt
- Peter Capaldi as Azolan, Valmont's valet
- Valerie Gogan as Julie, Madame de Tourvel's chambermaid
- Laura Benson as Émilie, a courtesan
- Joe Sheridan as Georges, Madame de Tourvel's footman
- Joanna Pavlis as Adèle, Madame de Rosemonde's maid
- Harry Jones as Monsieur Armand
- François Montagut as Belleroche, Merteuil's lover
Dangerous Liaisons was the first English-language film adaptation of Laclos's novel. The screenplay was based on Christopher Hampton's Olivier Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated theatrical adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, directed by Howard Davies and featuring Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.
The film was shot entirely on location in the Île-de-France region of northern France, and featured historical buildings such as the Château de Vincennes in Val-de-Marne, the Château de Champs-sur-Marne, the Château de Guermantes in Seine-et-Marne, the Château du Saussay in Essonne, and the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles.
Liaisons was the final film appearance of Academy Award and Tony Award-nominated actress Mildred Natwick.[unreliable source?] Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role of Cécile, and Sarah Jessica Parker turned it down before it was offered to Thurman. Annette Bening went through several auditions for the role of the courtesan Émilie, but in the end the role went to Laura Benson. Bening was auditioning for Milos Forman's adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses at the same time, Valmont, in which she would play the role of the Marquise de Merteuil.
The score of Dangerous Liaisons was written by the British film music composer George Fenton. The soundtrack also includes works by a number of baroque and classical composers, reflecting the story's 18th-Century-French setting; pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck feature prominently, although no French composers are included.
|1||Dangerous Liaisons Main Title/"Dressing"||George Fenton|
|2||"Madame De Tourvel"||George Fenton|
|3||"The Challenge"||George Fenton|
|4||"O Malheureuse Iphigénie!", from Iphigénie en Tauride||Christoph Willibald Gluck|
|5||"Going Hunting" – "Allegro" from Organ Concerto No. 13, "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale"||George Frideric Handel, arr.George Fenton|
|6||"Valmont's First Move"/"The Staircase"||George Fenton|
|7||"Beneath The Surface"||George Fenton|
|8||"The Set Up"||George Fenton|
|9||"The Key"||George Fenton|
|10||"Her Eyes Are Closing"||George Fenton|
|11||"Ombra mai fu", from Serse||George Frideric Handel|
|12||"Tourvel's Flight"||George Fenton|
|15||"Beyond My Control"||George Fenton|
|16||"A Final Request"||George Fenton|
|17||"Ombra Mai Fu" reprise/"The Mirror"||George Frideric Handel/George Fenton|
|18||Dangerous Liaisons End Credits||George Fenton|
|19||"Allegro" from Concerto in a Minor For Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065||Johann Sebastian Bach|
Dangerous Liaisons holds a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews. On Metacritic it has a score of 74 based on 17 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade B+ on scale of A to F.
Pauline Kael in The New Yorker described it as "heaven – alive in a way that movies rarely are." Hal Hinson in The Washington Post wrote that the film's "wit and immediacy is extraordinarily rare in a period film. Instead of making the action seem far off, the filmmakers put the audience in the room with their characters." Roger Ebert called it "an absorbing and seductive movie, but not compelling." Variety considered it an "incisive study of sex as an arena for manipulative power games." Vincent Canby in The New York Times hailed it as a "kind of lethal drawing-room comedy."
The Time Out reviewer wrote of Christopher Hampton's screenplay that "one of the film's enormous strengths is scriptwriter Christopher Hampton's decision to go back to the novel, and save only the best from his play". James Acheson and Stuart Craig were also praised for their work, with Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times stating that "the film's details of costuming (by The Last Emperor's James Acheson) and production design (by Stuart Craig of Gandhi and The Mission) are ravishing". All three would go on to win Academy Awards for their work on this film.
Glenn Close received considerable praise for her performance; she was lauded by The New York Times for her "richness and comic delicacy," while Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that, once she "finally lets loose and gives way to complete animal despair, Close is horrifying." Roger Ebert thought the two lead roles were "played to perfection by Close and Malkovich... their arch dialogues together turn into exhausting conversational games, tennis matches of the soul."
Michelle Pfeiffer was also widely acclaimed for her portrayal, despite playing, in the opinion of The Washington Post, "the least obvious and the most difficult" role. "Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it." The New York Times called her performance a "happy surprise." Roger Ebert, considering the trajectory of her career, wrote that "in a year that has seen her in varied assignments such as Married to the Mob and Tequila Sunrise, the movie is more evidence of her versatility. She is good when she is innocent and superb when she is guilty." Pfeiffer would later win a British Academy Film Award for her performance.
The casting of John Malkovich proved to be a controversial decision that divided critics. The New York Times, while admitting there was the "shock of seeing him in powdered wigs", concluded that he was "unexpectedly fine. The intelligence and strength of the actor shape the audience's response to him". The Washington Post was similarly impressed with Malkovich's performance: "There's a sublime perversity in Frears' casting, especially that of Malkovich... [he] brings a fascinating dimension to his character that would be missing with a more conventionally handsome leading man." Variety was less impressed, stating that while the "sly actor conveys the character's snaky, premeditated Don Juanism... he lacks the devilish charm and seductiveness one senses Valmont would need to carry off all his conquests".
At the 61st Academy Awards, Dangerous Liaisons won three Oscars out of seven nominations, for Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton), Best Costume Design (James Acheson), and Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig and Gérard James). Its four unsuccessful nominations were for Best Actress (Glenn Close), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Pfeiffer), Best Original Score (George Fenton), and the Academy Award for Best Picture. Director Stephen Frears and lead actor John Malkovich were not nominated.
At the 43rd British Academy Film Awards, Michelle Pfeiffer won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Christopher Hampton won for Best Screenplay. The film received a further eight nominations, in the categories of Best Direction (Stephen Frears), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Close), Best Cinematography (Philippe Rousselot), Best Costume Design (Acheson), Best Original Film Score (Fenton), Best Editing (Mick Audsley), Best Make Up Artist (Jean-Luc Russier) and Best Production Design (Craig).
In addition to his Oscar and BAFTA awards, Christopher Hampton also won the London Film Critics' Circle Award for Screenwriter of the Year, and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.
Stephen Frears won the César Award for Best Foreign Film and Best Director from the Boston Society of Film Critics. The film was second only to Mississippi Burning in the National Board of Review's Top 10 films.
Almost 25 years after he played Valmont, John Malkovich directed a French-language version of Hampton's play in Paris, which ran at the Théâtre de l'Atelier. In December 2012, the production was brought to Lansburgh Theatre by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for a limited run in Washington, D.C.
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