Classic Review: Dangerous Liaisons

Movies and Television

Loved this movie back in the day, caught Dangerous Liaisons again on cable recently. So good, and holds up almost 20 years after its release. And for a classic type drama, this one is fast moving, beautifully shot and superbly acted.

The whole thing is gorgeous: the pre-revolution France, the castles, and the clothes. Just beautiful, without the moody lighting some films employ now that put half the picture in the dark.

The story is compelling with its clever war of words that just builds innuendo upon innuendo and gets better from there. Two lovers, played by Glenn Close and John Malkovich, conspire revenge against one of their exes by going after his intended; then set a wager on whether or not Malkovich can seduce the virtuous Michelle Pfeiffer.

Acting! Who’d have thunk it?!

Cover of "Dangerous Liaisons"
Cover of Dangerous Liaisons

These are strong, interesting characters to be sure. These performances just rock, and make the movie. Especially leads John Malkovich and Glenn Close, who nail one verbal skirmish scene after another, and act the shit out of this thing.

Malkovich is Valmont, the not particularly handsome but rakish, lecherous cad who preys upon women and enjoys the battle (seduction) more than the victory (sex). One could bust a thesaurus trying to describe him: vile, conniving, dishonest, sexist, notorious. He’s a master at his craft, so much so that he has to set himself even more difficult challenges, such as using Michelle Pfeiffer’s own goodness against her in his seduction. Like Close, he’s never lost a battle and if he were a true military leader, you’d expect him to say something along the lines of “Sun Tzu fought like a wuss.”

Glenn Close is a wealthy Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil. Wicked. Manipulative. Despicable. Sinister. She’s liberated and in control, and plays these sex/war games with Valmont to pass the time and hide the truth: they’d be the perfect couple, but would never risk it. Sex is fun and all, but love is far more dangerous. Her motto: “win or die.” And she means it. She would make Machiavelli her prison bitch.

As the two leads spar you realize that they really love each other, but would never be caught doing so. So they go after their marks, Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman, dupe their friends and dance around each other. And they have a ball doing it. But despite some great humor and funny moments, this is a dark and serious tragic tale.

Like all great tragedies, it’s virtue not vice that dooms.

The twisted way that Valmont uses Pfeiffer’s own nobility, honor and the like against her to make her betray everything she believes in, is the heart of this movie. She gives in, not to a vice such as lust, but to a virtue, love. And it dooms her, and subsequently everyone else.

In my favorite moments, Glenn Close doesn’t like being replaced by the lovely Michelle Pfeiffer and forces Malkovich to make a choice, in a most cruel way. He does, but it destroys him, so when he comes to claim his prize (Close), she reneges on their deal in spectacular fashion.

It’s one of the best scenes ever and I cannot believe Glenn Close’s line here did not make the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Quotes – hell, even the 400 nominees – because it was fucking awesome. One little word that I’ll not give away here. It sets everyone on a collision course with doom, as Close and Malkovich try to outflank each other until the film comes to its end.

If you hate anything that’s not overly prosaic, that’s a stylish period piece or unconventional love stories, you probably won’t like this. But if you’re open minded and enjoy intelligent drama and finely crafted performances; and miss the days when studios gambled on actors with actual talent, good scripts and smart movies rather than some of the drivel they pump out these days, you should love this.

Final Snark: Damn I liked this movie once upon a time.

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