Still from 1959's "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

oblivious to their secretive menace.

 

Much of 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses comparatively capitalized on the thrills, and eventual consequences, of indulging sinful sensual pleasures. Its story revolves around two aristocrats — the lecherous Vicomte de Valmont and the conniving Marquise de Merteuil — who almost ritualistically seduce and destroy pretty young things to amuse one another, to get off on the fact that they can get away with it. The story’s classic, if fattening: soap opera so mean-spirited can only ride so high on the fumes of vicious black comedy before everything starts to seem just plain cruel.

 

With the 1989 and 1999 American adaptations so much a part of the modern cinematic canon (the first’s a star-studded, gussied-up battle of wits, the second a wicked, sexy teen movie), most are unaware that the novel’s been adapted nearly 10 times, often with better success. (The Chinese 2012 take is undoubtedly the best — it’s the first to get the tone as well as the performances just right.)

 

Frequently forgotten, then, is the very first cinematic adaptation of the book: the Roger Vadim-directed, black-and-white lensed Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959). Starring Gérard Philipe and Jeanne Moreau as the central anti-heroes, it’s mostly a loose page-to-screen transition. In this version, for instance, Valmont (Philipe) and Merteuil (Moreau) are immoral spouses who tirelessly go on extramarital sexual adventures and share their stories over dinner. Remaining intact in the plot, though, are Valmont’s destructive beddings of two good-hearted young women (Annette Strøyberg, Jeanne Valérie). 

 

Initially, the film captures what made the novel so indelible: the dialogue’s playful (“What’s her background?” “Aristocratic.”), the performances puckish, and the atmosphere deliciously — and spectacularly — high class, an amalgamation of black cocktail dresses, fizzing martinis, and flirtatious jazz.

 

But as the storyline thickens — Valmont famously falls in love with one of his conquests, presenting a moral dilemma — it becomes evident that Vadim, a filmmaker who never made a movie featuring as good of substance as style, is all wrong for the directing job. Because he frequently flounders when a movie has to become more than its provocative images, it’s no surprise that the movie starts becoming infinitely less interesting when it has to be more than just its witty trading of barbs and bourgeoisie elegance. 

 

It doesn't help that Philipe’s miscast (Valmont’s supposed to delight in destroying lives, yet Philipe seems conflicted); that Moreau is a well-dressed, attractively evil, and dependably scene-stealing femme fatale but doesn’t get nearly enough screen time; and that the film never amplifies its melodramatic potential. It mostly plays it straight when it should be having fun with itself. The ending briefly invigorates the feature — fire literally swallows a wrongdoer — but why move in the direction of Vadim’s shortcomings when the 2012 version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is waiting around the corner, itching to be discovered? C+

DIRECTED BY

Roger Vadim

 

STARRING

Gérard Philipe

Jeanne Moreau

Annette Strøyberg

Jean-Louis Trintignant

Jeanne Valérie

Nicolas Vogel

 

RATED

NR

 

RELEASED IN

1959

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 42 Mins.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses November 7, 2017        

hen you see her, say a prayer and kiss your heart goodbye,” Madonna warned of the heroine starring in her 1987 single “Who’s That Girl.” “She’s trouble … now you’re falling at her feet.” 

 

But who wouldn’t give in to the appeal of a dangerous woman? How tempting it is to get closer to the fire that is a beautiful femme with deceitful inclinations; how exciting it is to beckon someone you know you should be staying away from and pretend as though you’re

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