Dangerous Liaisons is about eighteenth century French aristocrats who play games of the heart in order to entertain themselves. Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (John Malkovich) are two “professional” players who engage in a battle of wills and seductions, with tragic outcomes. Apparently, they were once lovers, and so their games seem to be in avoidance of any true feelings between the two of them. The Marquise challenges the Vicomte to seduce a beautiful young innocent, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) out of revenge: another former lover (who left the Marquise for a former lover of the Vicomte’s) is planning to marry the virginal, convent-educated Cecile. Thus, the Marquise wants her spoiled beforehand. Meanwhile, the Vicomte has challenged himself with procuring the affections of Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is famed for her chastity and devotion. In a subplot, the Marquise arranges for Cecile to fall in love with Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves) in order to further foil both the Vicomte and her old lover (whom we never meet). Both seductions are carried off, with surprising and ultimately tragic consequences.
Forgive the complex plot points, but take a look at all those names. The main draw of this period piece is its talent: Close, Malkovich, and Pfeiffer were at the top of their game, and Thurman and Reeves were rising stars at the time. Despite the ridiculousness of the story, and some rather clunky dialogue, everyone performs quite admirably. Malkovich is the star here. He’s perhaps not as handsome as one would expect for a legendary lover, but that makes his conquests all the more interesting. He smolders and oozes through this picture, and really only shows us his heart at the very end of the film. Close is also outstanding and matches Malkovich in intensity. If I had to pick a weak link, it would probably be Pfeiffer, but only because Thurman and Reeves are not given much to do besides stand around and look pretty while being somewhat vapid.
Overall, everyone keeps you entertained. Pretty people in pretty places wearing pretty period costumes allows one to forgive quite a bit. This particular story has spawned various television miniseries and movies. As a matter of fact, there was Valmont the following year (1989), starring Annette Bening and Colin Firth. Might have to check that one out. And of course, for the teenaged set, there was Cruel Intentions with Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe. I haven’t seen any of the others to compare, but I will re-iterate that this one was kind of a mess. Looked great, and was well-acted, but somehow just didn’t seem entirely cohesive, and the screenplay left a little to be desired. It came off like a bad romance novel, and when you’ve got actors like Glenn Close and John Malkovich delivering your lines, well, they deserve better. Still, it’s an entertaining enough movie, and I’d say that if you’re a fan of any of the stars, it’s probably required viewing.