Friday, December 26, 2008

Dangerous Liaisons (Les Liaisons Dangereuses, 1959)

Our mini love affair with Jeanne Moreau continues with this French adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” Rather than telling the tale in its original eighteenth-century setting, as did the American version starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich, director Roger Vadim and writer Claude Brule set this story in late-1950’s France.

This time around, Merteuil (Moreau) and Valmont (Gerard Philipe) are cast as a couple in a VERY open marriage. They actively encourage each other in their dalliances, and enjoy crowing about their conquests to one another. Outsiders view them as a little odd, and most of their acquaintances know that at least one of them is unfaithful, but no one guesses at the true depths of their degeneracy. Merteuil is slightly piqued that Court, a lover whom she had been planning to dump, has beaten her to the punch by getting engaged to a pretty, young woman named Cecile (Jeanne Valerie). Merteuil decides to get even by having Valmont seduce Cecile, thus sullying Court’s marriage bed. In a stunning Alps ski resort, Valmont sets about the relatively easy task of bedding the curious teenager, but along the way he meets a much more intriguing woman. Marianne Tourvel is not only beautiful and charming, but a virtuous wife; and Valmont has just enough heart left to be drawn to her. He tells himself and Merteuil that he is simply relishing a difficult conquest, but Merteuil senses the budding love behind his bravado, and she is jealous of it. There follows a classic storm of jealousy and deceit, leaving behind broken hearts, minds, and lives.

I have not read the novel on which this film is based. My introduction to this story was through the 1988 John Malkovich movie, and I am a huge fan of that film. Merteuil and Valmont are simply fascinating people. They put on this elaborate show of worldliness and seduction, each for an audience consisting only of the other, yet they hold each other at arm’s length. There have never been two who deserve each other more, but they express their love for each other through elaborate conquests of others. Or maybe their delight in each other’s dalliances is not love at all, but a sick form of possessiveness. Perhaps each feels that as long as the other is completely promiscuous, they will never commit true, emotional infidelity.

Laclos’s novel is said to have made waves upon its publication in 1782. The tale of French aristocrats is one of a class of people whose lifestyle has run itself to its logical conclusion. The Aristocracy is known for living lives of leisure, with an obsession with fashion, and a lack of the usual sexual mores. In Merteuil and Valmont, the Aristocracy is seen as consisting of nothing but leisure, fashion, and sexual obsession. It is a story, in a way, of the end of an era, and some say it helped hasten the end of that era. The novel’s dramatization of depraved behavior may have helped flame the fires of the rising French Revolution. Really, the guillotine is too good for Merteuil and Valmont!

This modernized version of the story did not thrill me quite as much as the Malkovich/Close film. The quality of acting and dialog in that 1988 movie conspire to make it perfect. The 1959 “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” is not quite perfect, but it is still excellent. Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Philipe play their roles with charm and menace. Early on, Moreau seemed to be playing a slightly gentler version of Merteuil, but I think that was just her incredible beauty influencing me. Eventually she is seen to be crueler and more heartless than Valmont.

Jeanne Moreau is a fascinating actress. She has what I would consider to be one of the most beautiful faces in film. Her eyebrows are natural and full, on a strong, yet feminine face that, like many beautiful faces, borders on the ugly at times. With her looks and talent she could have been a traditional movie star, but she seems to have made a specialty of playing dangerous women, heartbreakers, and libertines rather than heroines. In an interview on “The Lovers” DVD, she makes it clear that she didn’t set out to play villainesses, but she was always drawn to strong female parts, and in the 1950’s and 60’s, that meant playing unsympathetic women. She plays them unapologetically.

That “Dangerous Liaisons” goes down so well in a more modern setting shows how timeless it is, and I’m sure that the right filmmaker could make a science fiction classic out of it. This story will remain relevant as long as people continue to fall in love and get jealous of each other. As for me, this film only left me more in love with Jeanne Moreau, who is quickly becoming my favorite actress.

4.5 stars

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