Dangerous Liaisons / River's Edge June 18, 2019
1 Hr., 59 Mins.
1 Hr., 39 Mins.
efore there were fear and loathing in Las Vegas, sex and deception were humming along among pre-Revolution French aristocrats. At least such is the case for the French and aristocratic characters populating Les Liaisons dangereuses, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel from 1782. In the book, which does away with conventional structuring and instead is made up of a series of letters, we get acquainted with Isabelle
de Merteuil, a marquise, and Valmont, a viscount. Both are born schemers who, throughout the novel, together blueprint and then press play on various games of sexual manipulation. It’s devious, tantalizing stuff — the sort of scrumptious soap opera so scrumptious that it’s slowly become among the most frequently adapted of literary material. People have never seemed to get enough. The book’s been refashioned, countless times, as movies, TV shows, plays, and operas. Inevitably, even the porn industry couldn't resist taking a stab at it.
The glamorous cruelty of Les Liaisons dangereuses has perennially made it difficult for me to grow attached to what it or its redesigned successors have had to offer. It’s mean-spirited drama to be more admired than relished. But the most famous adaptation, 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons, which is more based on the 1985 play than the novel (its screenplay was done by the playwright, Christopher Hampton), is, of the cinematic versions I’ve seen, the one that’s best shown me why Laclos’ centuries-old story has riveted many a generation. Directed by Stephen Frears as a film-length intersection of high art and cheap-thrill-obsessed trash, it’s tinged with rather than drenched in camp. It’s sophisticated but not stiff, as it often goes for the majority of period pieces. It’s wicked but not so wicked that when humanity creeps in we’re unconvinced. It’s also fun to look at: the costumes and decoration have the pomp and visual energy of a particularly busy and colorful rococo painting come to life.
Dangerous Liaisons puts Glenn Close, sublimely gelid, and John Malkovich, exceptionally snaky, in the Merteuil and Valmont roles, respectively. The aristocrats, though socially powerful, have scratched reputations. Merteuil is an ice maiden known for betrayal; Valmont, a picture-perfect libertine, is infamous for being an unabashed womanizer.
Merteuil and Valmont are clearly in love with each other when the film opens. But both being master manipulators who’d rather die violently than show off even a single genuine emotion, they spend most of their time mapping out challenges in which one party seduces an unwitting outsider for a mutual laugh.
Famously by now, Dangerous Liaisons is built on a bet that will eventually lead both to ruin. If Valmont is able to successfully seduce and then break the heart of the religious, married Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), then Merteuil will sleep with him. Another conquest serves as a side-plot. In order to get revenge on her former lover, who recently broke up with her, Merteuil challenges Valmont to debauch Cécile (Uma Thurman), the ex-boyfriend’s naïve, virginal new fiancée.
It might seem an odd choice to have the cast of a France-set melodrama be so American. But Frears’ intentionality behind the decision — he found that American actors, especially ones with stage experience, could better handle and emotionally complement Hampton’s prodigal, elegant dialogue — pays off. With the exception of Thurman's love interest, Keanu Reeves, a Canadian fish out of water who struggles to put away the surfer-dude affect and thus is wholly unbelievable, these age-old characters teem with new life.
Close’s exterior grace and tautness thrillingly accentuate Merteuil’s inner brilliance and thought-through deviousness. When at the end of the movie she receives news of a tragic death, which causes her to shriek, flail her body around like a child throwing a tantrum, and smash priceless fragile decor in her bedroom, her bottled-up, kempt coolness stirringly turns explosive and red-hot. Nothing in her performance — not even this spectacular meltdown — isn't meticulous.
Malkovich doesn’t look the part, which calls for someone more singularly dashing. He’s balding, slightly, and is too facially harsh for someone who could trick an unwitting party into thinking that he isn’t, for once, up to no good. But Malkovich knows Valmont’s emotional brutishness to a tee — a characteristic far more important to so morally complicated a role than physique. To watch him make bad is a lot like watching a particularly lithe cat burglar rob the rich in a heist movie. He’s so good at immorality, and so obviously takes pleasure in his wrongs, that there are moments, particularly toward the beginning of the movie, where we want him to get away with his evils. I’ve always found his fate, which finds him simultaneously dying and realizing that he’s actually in love with Tourvel, convoluted. But Malkovich understatedly plays out the development. Strong is the sense that even if he loves the woman as he says, whether he’s deserving of her love or not isn’t as dubious as it is simply undeserved.
As the collective emotional center of Dangerous Liaisons, Pfeiffer and Thurman affect profoundly as innocents ensnared in bear-traps of sex games. Other adaptations have unevenly grappled with taking on the difficult task of making us feel for these women without making us pity them in a near-infantilizing way. But the actresses underscore the tragedy of their victimizations, and undergird their multidimensionality. Pfeiffer captures Tourvel’s expansive emotionality and naïve open-heartedness; Thurman gets just right a young woman who thinks she’s spryly climbing into sexual maturity.
“It is always the best swimmers who drown,” Malkovich says at one point in the film. In the thankless, bejeweled world of Dangerous Liaisons, though, everyone, including the Thurman-and Pfeiffer-portrayed virtuous, dies in some way or another, physically or spiritually. Part of the sinful allure of it all, then, is that these characters variably wither away whether they’re in the throes of illicit pleasure-seeking or purely melodramatic circumstances — a reminder as to why soap operas directly related or adjacent to it have continued having such a hold.
n River’s Edge (1986), arguably the darkest American teen movie after Stand by Me, which came out the same year, there is no sinful allure to be found, even if its story has something of a melodramatic tint, too. Based on a crime that actually took place in 1981, it concerns a group of high-schoolers who try to figure out what to do when one clique member (Daniel Roebuck) kills another (Danyi Deats). The film, written by Neal Jimenez and directed by Tim
Hunter, has a nice naturalist flair, and persuasively paints a picture of irresolute morality. (No one in the posse reports the death immediately; one of the characters, played by a likable, shaggy-haired Keanu Reeves, goes to the police when his guilt becomes too much to bear.)
But more crucially, the movie fails to impactfully explain what led up to the murder. We know that the victim was apparently “shooting her mouth off” just before she was strangled, but what about isn’t expounded on. We also don’t have a rounded understanding of her relationship with neither her eventual killer nor the friends to whom she was purportedly close, making the indifference unclear.
There are also a couple of badly written characters that pervert the icky-feeling-but-still-convincing nihilism at the heart of the film. There’s Dennis Hopper as a drug dealer who carries around a sex doll as if it was a satchel who’s supposed to work as a parallel to the movie’s main murderer. (He, too, killed a woman in his younger days, only he says he was in love with her, so to his eye it’s not so bad a thing.) There’s also Crispin Glover, atrocious here, as the one friend in the crowd who’s feverishly willing to cover up the death. An important character, to be sure — he’s the only one whose morality isn’t so unresolved — but Glover portrays him so manically and cartoonishly that a few minutes into River’s Edge I wished he’d been the one done away with at the beginning of the movie. A nail scratching a chalkboard sounds like Vivaldi compared to his neverending whines. The irritation is by design, I suppose. But Glover’s such a caricature that you don’t purely dislike him — you also find that he takes us out of the movie, which, in its best moments, can compel. Much as I didn’t like the character, however, he’s undoubtedly key in that he summarizes what prevents River’s Edge from totally working. It never decides if it wants to take a provocative but important subject matter seriously or if it wants to turn it into an eccentric dark comedy that also functions as a morality tale. It’s forever on a tonal edge. Eventually it falls into and then drowns in a river of its own making.
Dangerous Liaisons: A-
River's Edge: C