That Moment in Dangerous Liaisons (1988)
Being rich is a pretty sweet gig. Just ask the French in the late 18th century (Well, before that whole revolution and guillotines thing). Those rich know how to do it. Take the Marquise de Merteuil for example. Here’s a lady with some spare change. The girl is straight up money. She’s gilded, upscale, well-off, in the big time, got the duckets, and loaded. To say she lives in opulence is like saying I had only a few slices of pizza last night. That might sound like a terrible reference, but trust me, if you’d been there, you would have said, “Wow, the amount of pizza he is eating bares a striking resemblance to 18th century French aristocracy.” Or something like that. It was a lot. Anyway, the point is, Merteuil (pronounced “Meow, I’ll scratch your eyes out”) is stinking rich. She’s primped and preened by staff and lives without want or need. At least financially. Yet she is not your usual woman, or one that might be expected from this rather chaste period. No, Merteuil has felt the incendiary sting of betrayal and the harrowing ravages of love. So much so she sees herself as a kind of female avenger, one to level the playing field as it were. Love is a winnable game. At all cost. And her favorite word is “cruelty.”
She is not alone though. Enter the Vicomte de Valmont, a nasty, venomous man of equal wealth who is bored by the mundane pursuits of courtship and the rituals of sex. He is a scandalous figure with a fitting reputation among the ladies of society that seems only to endear him more. The man is far from chivalrous but is still remarkably sought after for attention. The ladies love them some Valmont.
So here’s the scoop. Not long ago, Merteuil’s lover left her and geesh is the lady steamed. He’s gone and got himself arranged to marry the virginal ingénue Cécile de Volanges, a naive girl only just introduced to society, having spent her formative years in a convent. She’s prime for the picking to put if bluntly. So, Merteuil has a scheme to wreck her old beau’s honeymoon with a bedtime surprise that’ll surely serve up some cold revenge. She wants Valmont to seduce the girl and ruin her before she’s wedded off. Wicked. But Valmont’s working on a project of his own. Seems there is a woman who is famously pure, driven by the highest of morals and incapable of even the slightest impropriety. She is Madame de Tourvel, the ultimate prize and Valmont’s determined to corrupt her absolutely.
He also wants a piece of Mertruil so he agrees to help Merteuil but only if she in turn agrees to a little hanky panky on the side. Being the astute observer of males that she is (read: guys want sex), she ups the ante and says she’ll give him her fine French leg but only after he seduces Cecile and ruins Madame de Tourvel . . . with proof . . . in writing. Easy peasy he muses. The deal is set. Activate: dangerous liaisoning.
Directed by Stephen Frears, this classic period drama is filled with delicious dialogue and some memorable acting. At its heart, we learn that love is not to be trifled with and that sex and romance are double-edged weapons; one must be careful where they run the blade as it can draw too close to those wielding its power. Turned spiteful by her past, Mertuil is a vile creature, loathsome of romance and filled with villainous hatred of men and their perceived entitlement over women. But she is master of observation, manipulating the males in her trap like pawns, using the lure of her sexual prowess to subjugate them at her will. On the other side is Valmont, a lecherous social climber who has made a career in bedding and humiliating women. But both these players are not immune, and the love they call poison infects them in places turned dark, causing more wretched harm than they are prepared for. The innocents in their snares are the ultimate victims, twisted and convinced that it is they who are to blame, suffering the most and paying the highest price. Beautifully directed, lavishly decorated, and magnificently acted, Dangerous Liaisons is a feast that only gets more delicious over time.
That Moment In: Dangerous Liaisons
Scene Setup: Vicomte de Valmont is learning he may not have the power he believes himself to possess. That’s a difficult thing to swallow. He’s played the louse for so long, he’s never really understood the consequences, and in turn is not equipped to fully recognize when it is he who is being played. In his bid to bed the Marquise de Merteuil, he’s taken on the duel challenge of deflowering the young Cecile and corrupting the once infallible Madame de Tourvel. To accomplish these feats, he’s spread himself thin and juggled more than he’s really skilled enough to handle. Cecile was the easier of the two, and yet he’s had a lot to take care of, including her doting mother and the young girl’s desire for a music teacher, despite her betrothal to Merteuil’s ex. Compounding the issue is that Merteuil has take said music teacher, played by Neo himself, as her own lover in hiding, most assuredly to make things more difficult for Valmont.
The real challenge has been de Tourvel. Not only has the prude been refusing his advances, she’s been getting letters from a friend warning her of Valmont’s steamy reputation. But, he’s weakening her defenses, all of it through devilish chicanery – once even while paying a courtesan (that’s a hooker to you and me) right in front of her, lying his way out of what seems surely a no-way-out situation. He’s that good. Eventually, this gets him just what’s he after, a night under her bedsheets and a letter professing her undying love. It’s a free ticket to the the inside of Merteuil’s frilly bloomers, or so he thinks. Not willing to give up the upper hand, Merteuil decides that if she’s gonna get her freak on with Valmont, then she wants the old Valmont. Not this new one. She can see that de Tourvel did a little something something on her boy. He’s smitten and Merteuil isn’t about to share her goodies with a guy lusting after somebody else’s. So she offers him a story about a man involved with a woman he shouldn’t be, and how to rid himself of her and save his reputation, he cut if off clean, answering all her saddened queries with “It’s beyond me control.” Valmont gets the hint and travels to de Tourvel.
Merteuil is as sharp as a razor, and just as cold. She is never without composure, always one step ahead, and clearly the more skillful at this game than Valmont, but there are bare threads and fingers tugging. As she sits high above the players in this scheme, she is herself becoming too involved and as is expected, her emotions are getting the best of her. Same goes for our hero Valmont. Enamored as he is with Merteuil, his wily game with de Tourvel has ultimately backfired. The poor sap has fallen madly for the girl and to leave her is to break the one thing he was sure had no use for: his heart. He had thought he would be able to have it all. He bedded Cecile, earned bragging rights over de Tourvel and would take Merteuil has his lover. Win, win and win. But when Merteuil circuitously remarks how he must abandon de Tourvel in order to have her, it strikes deep. With no tools in his chest for dealing with compassion or even how to properly interpret his feelings for de Trourvel he stumbles over to the woman he has conquered to tell her for reasons beyond his control, he must say goodbye.
It does not go well. She is initially shocked at his sudden transformation. When he arrived, she was overcome with joy at seeing the man she is devoted to, freely giving in to the love that he has broke from her throughout the months prior. Giving in and allowing the emotions that he has given her to express has changed her from the once uptight and prudish wife to the much relaxed and vivacious lover. She welcomes him into his arms as he collapses to his knees. It is obvious that if there is such a thing as love and if it does compel two people to find happiness, than this is that love. For a moment, the viewer is convinced that Valmont cannot do what he has come to do, that her embrace is so true and right that he is incapable of harm and will forever give himself to her. Director Frears frames this powerfully, keeping the two just off center, with her delicate arms holding his head against her chest. It is unexpected and reveals her power over him, at least emotionally. It brings together her heart and his mind, which are the two things that each of them have, to this moment, allowed the other to change. But it does not last of course. This is after all a dangerous liaison and we know that Valmont, despite the aching love for her he has, will let her go. That’s how strong a hold Merteuil has on him, and when he rises out of her arms we feel the shift.
He moves to the mirror and in so doing reveals two things: 1) The break up is about him. He faces himself and not de Tourvel. He even hides her from the reflection. He looks right into his own eyes and stares with hatred and sadness as he repeats the line fed to him by Merteuil. He recognizes what he is doing, realizing that, perhaps for the first time, he is causing great pain. Certainly he has never played and lost before and the hurt he is feeling is unfamiliar and unwelcome. 2) He is saying goodbye to more that de Tourvel, he is ridding himself of the weakened man she made him become. When he states that it is “beyond my control,” he is not talking to de Tourvel, he is convincing himself, and in essence, breaking up with his own heart. It’s devastating.
When he can no longer stand the sight of himself in the mirror, he moves to a window, keeping his back to her. He continues to repeat the phrase and with each passing utterance, it becomes more difficult to speak. His voice breaks, and it is clear the fault line runs straight from his mouth to his chest splitting him irreversibly and irrevocably in half. But only one half can remain and that half is the monster. Cold, unfeeling, determined, and selfish, the inner beast regains control and though the shock of his broken heart lingers, it beats back the pain and finds new focus.
For dear de Trouvel, it’s much worse. Realizing that she has been used and betrayed, she falls apart, asking him is he wants to kill her, his words are so harsh. And in fact, much like poison, she falls ills not long after he leaves, eventually succumbing to the agony of her fate and dies in despondency, learning too late that Valmont did indeed love her and was himself victim to a greater monster.
So why does it matter? For the entirety of the film, Valmont has been both the demon and the fool, being played and playing others. His amusement in destroying de Tourvel and the, let’s be honest, rape of Cecile have been difficult to watch. He is unlikable in every detail yet when we see how he has become changed by his own rakish game we feel for him. This has everything to do with John Malkovich and his extraordinary performance. Lean and hungry, he plays the Vicomte with none of the spoils his character might be expected to possess. We recognize the charm and we smile at his wily ways. We are meant to hate him yet we are fond of him just the same. His playfulness, his love of the game, his devotion to his commitment are fun to watch, and it is because of this that we are so struck by our own emotions when he breaks with de Tourvel. How could we feel so badly for him? But we do. And even more so when he meets his own end, haunted by the memories of her face and her touch. He chooses death over the intolerable pain of his choice.
Ironically, breaking with de Tourval is, despite the outcomes of both, the best thing to happen to him. He may have loved her while they were together, but he didn’t know what it meant until he destroyed her. This is what finally fixes him. Ravaged by this revelation, he welcomes death as penance for his moral crime. It changes everything we know about him and gives the film a character we can honor.