30 Years: Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

Dangerous Liaisons (2018)

I only managed to get through 2007 as an Oscar anniversary year for 2017. The five best picture nominees had certainly changed in my memory with 10 years of gestation. Beginning with a 30th anniversary retrospective, as 1988 was the year of my birth, seems necessary. Starting with the favorite from my memory Dangerous Liaisons is always a good bet. With Glenn Close, Michelle Pfeiffer and peak Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity) behind the camera, right before his best film The Grifters, this costume drama blends the shade throwing of pre-revolutionary French noble people with some of the finest sets and corsets to grace the screen. And that’s not to mention the arguably best performance from Glenn Close in the iconic role of the Marquis de Merteuil.


Adapted from Christopher Hampton’s play based on French epistolary novel Les liaisons dangereuses, Hampton handily won an Oscar for the work’s biting wit and corrupt, soon to be extinct aristocratic antics.  The saucy rivalry between former lovers Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) and Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) proves lustful and omniscient of the coming Revolution.  When the widowed Marquise request Valmont deflower the virginal Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) before her arranged marriage to a virginity obsessed ex-lover of the Marquise’s.  Valmont has his own plot to seduce the prim, devout, married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) leading to a wager of a much desired reward given proof to the encouraged affair.  The oft adapted story–most commonly known in the nineties drama Cruel Intentions–is a  tale of deceit, psychological torture and bodices; I love it but the manipulation may not settle well for all.

John Malkovich’s Valmont stands second only to Marlon Brando’s Stanley Kowalski in the category of sexy-leacherous. His appeal is based in his natural ease (in twisting the desires of those around him) and sexually aggressive manner; he is everything we would hope taken by early aneurysm in the modern dating pool.  The flawless recitation and glares and smoldering glances makes this a role uncomfortably separate from the rest of the cast. That offputting distance from the more tame denizens of these estates seems out of place, but as “everyone receives him” that difference, setting himself above anyone’s judgment, allows the lofty role to be villainous and pitiable as his demeanor unravels with his most nefarious deeds committed.  It’s not easy to be a vampire who takes afternoon strolls. The best actor field was filled with a powerhouse list of leading men, but Malkovich couldn’t have been far off.


Glenn Close is my darling treasure in this movie. Deliciously vindictive and conniving, the Marquise adapts to her every interaction for how she can most benefit.  Speaking to Celine, she is a kitten pawing at a mouse, all innocent and leaning in with purrs as she unfurls her fangs, covered by a lovely fan. Glenn nails every challenging theatrical flourish and camera monopolizing gesture to be a piercing force that runs her personal kingdom. In an astonishing monologue, revealing the path of the Marquis’s social development–my dictionary entry for jaded–she confesses “I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.”  She has studied the benefits of feminizing herself when beneficial and crushing any adversity to her wishes. Her final scenes of distress though are expelling demons decades in the making, the complete undoing of a person who sacrificed decency long before getting her inevitable comeuppance when she’s already lost her own happiness. Staring and removing makeup has never been more vital; Timothee took notes for the end of Call Me By Your Name.

Michelle Pfeiffer serves as victim to the depraved bet, and where her role is reactionary, she must keep up with the merciless forces of Vishnu and Caligula.  With Malkovich trailing her, out of sight, the befuddlement to the predatory, love-confessing contradiction is frightening. For as indomitable as Pfeiffer has become, her early ingenue roles could be as convincingly innocent.  Stephen Frears brings a challenging drama to a gorgeous, wonderfully blocked feature. The angles from Philippe Rousselot wonderfully captured the humor of the work as much as the power plays. Placing her demands, Glenn Close lords over Malkovich as he descends the stairs, but in the next room, the many mirrors will catch his panicked dive while eavesdropping on the next step of the Marquise’s plotting.  And where I could go on forever with the ornamental mansions and stunning wardrobes, the pair of Oscar wins in art direction (three-time winner Stuart Craig went on to design all the Harry Potter films) and costume design (also three-timer James Acheson won 3 for 3 nominations including back-to-back wins following 1987’s The Last Emperor).  Each bit of this film feeds my loves: corsets, well-utilized drawing room pacing, biting dialogue.  Even excusing Keanu Reeves, this film has maintained as my favorite best picture nominee of 1988 from memory, but there are two more well love films (Working Girl, Mississippi Burning) and two that missed the mark years ago and I’m yet to revisit (Rain Man, The Accidental Tourist).  I’ll be checking them all out and laying out my own views on my very first Oscar year.  If only I could go back and campaign for Glenn as a baby!


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