Content Warning: The following article includes discussions of sexual and emotional abuse and coercion.
It is March 23, 1782, September 9, 1959, September 24, 1985, December 21, 1988, November 17, 1989, and March 5, 1999. Yep. It’s going to be another of those weird ones.
In Ohio, 96 Christian Lenape are massacred by Pennsylvania militiamen at the missionary village of Gnadenhutten. The Netherlands officially recognizes the United States of America. Charles Watson-Wentworth becomes the Prime Minister of England. Atlas Missile 10-D carries an unmanned Mercury capsule into space, testing its heat shield. Soviet spacecraft Luna 2 is the first man-made object to smack into the moon. A week later, Nikita Kruschev would present President Eisenhower with a reproduction of the pennant it carried. The wreck of the Titanic is located by Dr. Robert Ballard and Jean-Louis Michel. Steve Jobs leaves Apple to found NeXT. An 8.1 earthquake hits Mexico city, killing ten thousand and injuring another thirty thousand. Pan Am flight 103 is blown up over Lockerbie. Roy Orbison dies. Benazier Bhutto becomes the Prime Minister of Pakistan. The Berlin Wall falls in Germany, and the Velvet Revolution begins in Czechoslovakia. The Dow closes for the first time at over 10,000. NATO launches air strikes against Yugoslavia.
Topping the charts are Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart with String Quartet in G and Symphony No. 35 in D, Joseph Haydn with Symphony No. 73 in D, The Browns with “The Three Bells”, Dire Straits with “Money for Nothing”, Poison with “Every Rose Has its Thorn”, Bad English with “When I See You Smile”, and Monica with “Angel of Mine”. On the stage, you can watch Richard Cumberland’s comic play “The Walloons”, or stay home and enjoy radio host Robert Q. Lewis guesting on on I’ve Got a Secret, the pilot for Growing Pains, Christmas specials of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and Night Court, the second part of that Perfect Strangers episode with James Noble, an episode of Just the Ten of Us coincidentally titled “Dangerous Liaisons”, the pilot episode of short-lived FOX demon-hunting series Brimstone, the Stargate SG-1 episode “1969”, or Olympic Gold Medalist Michelle Kwan skating to Disney’s greatest hits.
I mentioned recently that the very first thing I bought on amazon.com was a hardcover copy of the eighteenth century epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos on March 14, 1999. What prompted me to pull the trigger was, and I don’t recall the exact circumstances leading up to it, I ended up going to see this movie Cruel Intentions which had just come out in theaters, and about five to ten minutes into it, I suddenly realized that this hip and sexy teen movie was a straight-up adaptation of a play I’d seen about a year prior when either the Charles Street Players or the Evergreen Players (Can’t remember which) put on a performance of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which I’d rather liked. And besides, I’d also recently read Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, another 1780s epistolary novel which I’d… I won’t say “liked”, but it was very meaningful to me (I was going through some stuff).
In a lot of ways, Liaisons is kind of the anti-Werther. Where Goethe (and most epistolary novels, really, and, for that matter, found footage movies) use the device to increase intimacy, giving the impression that we are privy to the characters’ most private thoughts, the letters in Liaisons are full of contradictions and deceptions. They lie to each other. They concoct complex deceptions. Even characters who are conspiring together will misdirect each other. Rather than “legitimizing” the narrative, it instead keeps us constantly aware of the artifice: we are seeing exactly what each character wishes to present.
Pierre Ambroise François Choderlos de Laclos was a career military man. He’d wanted to go to America to help in the revolution, as many prominent French generals had done, but couldn’t afford it. Instead he got stuck on a boring assignment fortifying a little island I’ve never heard of whose most notable feature seems to be that it kinda looks like a penis and scrotum. To pass the time, and, I assume, inspired by the local geography, he decided to take a stab at literary immortality by writing a novel about the decadent hedonism of the minor aristocracy. Nailed it on the first try, really. The novel was fantastically successful, and spurred on by that success, he never wrote another novel again, but did go on to several lesser accomplishments such as inventing the artillery shell and numbering the streets of Paris. He was a staunch believer in Republican Revolutionary-era French sense: someone who wanted a constitutional republic rather than an insane, inbred, terminally daft monarch who reckoned the peasants were essentially a funny sort of farm animal ideals, and supported the revolution aligning himself with the Jacobins, but eventually got himself (fairly or not, I don’t know) branded an Orleaniste (That is, someone who wanted modern UK-style constitutional monarchy with a representative government and a king as a largely ceremonial head of state) and thrown in jail. He was narrowly spared from the guillotine by virtue mostly of just running out the clock on the Reign of Terror. He tried and failed to get into banking and diplomacy before returning to the army under Napoleon until his death in 1803.So when it turned out that our little trip through the nexus with War of the Worlds brought us, at the same point in the overarching narrative, in two different years, to the point where a film adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses was released in the US, well, that was just too weird of a coincidence not to take a closer look.
The story had already been adapted to the screen once before. Roger Vadim had made an adaptation set in a contemporary French ski resort back in 1959 with a jazz soundtrack by Thelonious Monk (Downside to being a child of the ’80s, the cool Jazz soundtrack for the seduction scenes makes me think of nothing so much as Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood), which had been the most successful French-made film in years, but was barred from export by the French government as it was, “unrepresentative of French film art.” When it finally made it to the states several years later, its frank sexuality prompted censorship and protests.
Both 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons and 1989’s Valmont return the story to its original setting in the last years of the Ancien Régime, but the former is based on the Hampton play, while the latter is adapted more directly from the book. Cruel Intentions rewrites the story to revolve around socialites at a modern New York prep school.
There’s been a handful of further adaptations: 2003 gave us Untold Scandal, retelling the story in Joseon Dynasty Korea and a French TV miniseries which, like the first movie, moved events to the 1960s Parisienne social scene. In 2005, Michael Lucas’s sexually explicit adaptation shifted the setting to the New York fashion industry, and the 2012 Chinese Dangerous Liaisons moved the setting to 1930s Shanghai. But I haven’t seen any of those, and don’t have the time to work past the language barrier, since my French isn’t passable, and I don’t speak a word of Korean, Mandarin, or Gay Porn, so I’m going to be focusing on the pre-century versions.
So, the plot. Okay. Deep breath.
I think it’s a bit interesting that there seems to be a bit of a tradition of casting a nontraditional romantic lead in the role of Valmont. I mean, I know that Alan Rickman and John Malkovitch and Colin Firth have all inspired their share of happy-pantsfeels, but I tend to think of them as the sorts of actors who you’re always meant to be surprised by in romantic roles. And one of my roommates may have had a crush on Ryan Philippe, but even he spends most of the movie playing down his looks. When I saw it back in ’97 or ’98, Valmont was played by Ian Oldaker, who, college theater being what it is (that is, a place where you’ll get a talented and versatile young actor from time to time, but getting more than one at the same time probably requires collusion), got a lot of the leading roles during that part of the ’90s. I remember noting at the time that he seemed maybe just a bit sinister for a role that involved many easy seductions. But a bit later, he also played the lead in Richard III, and that really drove home something about the character of Valmont for me: he isn’t meant to be straightforwardly handsome: Valmont is possibly the literary antecedent of the Sexy Bad Boy. In direct contrast to Merteuil, who, as she admits, is forced due to her societal role to trade on her looks, Valmont’s primary weapon is not his appearance but his charm. And ever since, I’ve implicitly imagined a kind of kinship between Richard of Gloucester and the Vicomte de Valmont, most particularly in Richard’s easy seduction of Lady Anne at the end of the second scene:
Was ever woman in this manner wooed?
Was ever woman in this manner won?
Upon my life, she finds, although I cannot,
Myself to be a marvellous proper man.
I’ll be at charges for a looking-glass,
And entertain some score or two of tailors,
To study fashions to adorn my body:
Since I am crept in favour with myself,
Will maintain it with some little cost.
But first I’ll turn yon fellow in his grave;
And then return lamenting to my love.
Shine out, fair sun, till I have bought a glass,
That I may see my shadow as I pass… In 1780s France, or 1950s France, or 1990s New York, The Vicomte de Valmont (Gérard Philipe as “Valmont de Merteuil”, Alan Rickman, John Malkovitch, Colin Firth, Ryan Philippe as “Sebastian Valmont”) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Jeanne Moreau as “Juliette de Merteuil”, Lindsay Duncan, Glenn Close, Annette Benning, Sarah Michelle Gellar as “Kathryn Merteuil”) are former lovers and present, let’s say, “frenemies” (Or a married couple in an open relationship, or stepsiblings), whose hobbies include dueling, the theater, and seducing, abusing, humiliating, and eventually discarding the young gentry. Merteuil wants Valmont to seduce fifteen-year-old Cécile Volanges (Jeanne Valérie, Leslie Manville, Uma Thurman, Faruzka Balk, Selma Blair as “Cecile Caldwell”) to get revenge against her former lover, Le Comte de Gercourt (Or “Court”), to who Cecile is engaged. Valmont isn’t initially interested, as he considers bedding underage girls too easy, and prefers the challenge of pursuing the married and notoriously prudish Présidente de Tourvel (Annette Vadim as “Marianne Tourvel”, Juliette Stevenson, Michelle Pfeifer as “Marie de Tourvel”, Meg Tilly, Reese Witherspoon as “Annette Hargrove”). He comes around when he finds out that Cécile’s mother, Madame de Volanges (Simone Renant, Fiona Shaw, Swoosie Kurtz, Siân Philips, Christine Baranski as “Bunny Caldwell”) has been badmouthing him to Tourvel. Also, Valmont is still lusting after Mertuil, and they make a side-bet that if he can provide written evidence of having successfully bedded Tourvel, she’ll sleep with him.
Cécile has meanwhile fallen in love with her music teacher, Monsieur le Chevalier Danceny (Jean-Louis Trintignant, Sean Baker, Keanu Reeves as “Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny”, Henry Thomas, Sean Patrick Thomas as “Ronald Clifford”), a thoroughly unsuitable match as he’s poor (or in one case black) or something. Mertuil and Valmont use the pretext of helping the two lovers to take advantage of them while simultaneously outing them to Madame de Volanges, and encouraging her not to let the two be together (Though she’s never thrilled about it, in some versions, Mme. Volanges is willing to allow a match between her daughter and Danceny, but what Merteuil wants is a disgraced Cécile married to Gercourt). Valmont seduces and/or rapes Cécile, and Merteuil persuades her to accept Valmont as an, ahem, private anatomy tutor. This may or may not lead to Cécile getting pregnant, after which she may or may not miscarry. Merteuil seduces Danceny, and possibly Cécile as well, but not at the same time (There’s a passage where it kinda sounds like Valmont bangs Danceny too at one point, but I’m not sure).
While this is going on, Valmont is also sleeping with Émilie (Mary Jo Randle, Laura Benson), a courtesan. After bedding her in scene four, he flips her over, slaps a piece of paper on her back, and composes a love-letter to Tourvel (Which, naturally, begins, “I have just come… To my desk.”). Later in scene thirteen, after he’s won her over, Tourvel sees them together and accuses him of making time with a socially unacceptable person. Valmont insists that their relationship is entirely innocent, and that Émilie is trying to rehabilitate her image. Now, in the script (and in Dangerous Liaisons), what he says is, “She’s done a little secretarial work for me on occasion.” But when I saw the play, what Valmont actually said was, “I’ve been employing her as a secretary.” It is just about the funniest callback joke I have ever seen on stage, even if I was the only one in the audience who got it. If there’s time, Valmont’s manservant and/or buddy Azolan (Christopher Wright, Oh, hey, hi there Peter Capaldi, Ian McNiece, Joshua Jackson as “Blaine Tuttle”) seduces Tourvel’s maid and/or closeted ex-boyfriend in order to get insider information, possibly by blackmailing her after he contrives to walk in on them. Through an uneasy combination of subterfuge, genuinely trying to be a good guy, and guilt tripping, Valmont eventually wins the heart (and other bits) of Tourvel, but falls in love with her in the process. Merteuil either becomes jealous or just wants to mess with Valmont and manipulates him into breaking Tourvel’s heart, whereupon she either retires to a convent and dies of one of those broken-heart-related illnesses that was always striking down women from books written prior to World War I, or goes insane, or goes back to her forgiving husband, or somehow ends up inheriting Valmont’s Jaguar.
Merteuil refuses to hold up her end of the deal with Valmont (It’s not in the rehearsal script, but if I’m remembering correctly, in the production I saw, she does offer him a half-hearted pity-fuck to add insult to injury, which also kinda happens in Valmont), leading the two to declare war on each other. Valmont breaks up her and Danceny by telling him how he was being used, but Merteuil counters by telling Danceny what Valmont had been up to with Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel, or sucker-punches him when he’s falling down drunk, or chases him down in the street and throws down with him, and Valmont is either bested because Danceny is a better duelist, or because he gets cocky and isn’t taking the duel seriously, or because he’s heartbroken and no longer caresThe script to the play says he gets careless after Danceny gets in a lucky hit, but in the performance I saw, Valmont easily dominates the fight, then just sort of gets tired of it, throws up his arms, and literally walks into Danceny’s sword. Dangerous Liaisons is similar, but more ambiguous: Valmont drops his sword and turns around, possibly intending to concede, and gets run through by a charging Danceny who can’t stop in time. We don’t even see the climax of the fight in Valmont, instead opting for a comical reaction shot from Ian McNeice. , or he falls onto the hearth and breaks his skull, or because Annette got knocked into the street trying to break up the fight and he got hit by cab saving her. Before he dies, he professes his love for Tourvel and gives either her or Danceny his collected letters and/or memoirs of the whole sordid affair.
Cécile goes back to the convent to become a nun, or she marries Gercourt while pregnant with Valmont’s kid, or maybe her and Danceny get together if he manages to avoid jail time. Merteuil is publicly shamed by the release of her letters, or privately shamed and tacitly blackmailed by the non-release of her letters, or expelled for carrying around a cocaine-filled rosary, and may or may not end up physically disfigured either because she set herself on fire trying to burn Valmont’s letters or because she caught smallpox while fleeing to the countryside. And then you put the fox in the boat and bring the chicken back.
I mean, lots of stories have love triangles. Les Liaisons Dangereuses has love parallelepipeds. Well, for a certain value of “love”.
A salient question at this point might be, “Why do I like it?” Fair enough. It doesn’t really sound like the sort of thing I should like. It is, basically, a story about terrible people doing terrible things to each other. We’re encouraged by the way the narrative is structured to view Valmont as the nominal hero despite the fact that he is, I do not intend to let this slide, a rapist the style of the novel is sufficiently coy, and its narrators sufficiently unreliable that it’s not entirely clear just how predatory his actions really were — it’s not even entirely clear, since we only have Cécile’s vague and emotional accounting of the incident, whether he forces anything more than a kiss on her — but the Hampton play is explicit on this point. Other adaptations vary considerably on this point, generally making Valmont manipulative but not necessarily coercive— in fact, he seems to inhabit a subculture that makes meaningful consent impossible. And Merteuil’s treatment of Cécile afterward sounds no different from the sort of rape apologia you still hear today, accusing her of having enjoyed it and attributing her lamentations purely to puritanical regret after-the-fact. Most of the female characters end up dead, deformed, or removed from society, and Valmont wins Tourvel largely through Urkeling: he begs and nags and publicly laments and ignores her refusals until she finally wears out and gives in. And I fucking hate Urkeling.
Would it surprise you tremendously to learn that Laclos was a feminist? I mean, it was the eighteenth century so it’s unlikely his feminism would be something hugely recognizable as such to a modern feminist. But he did write a book advocating for women’s education and women’s rights, and he did get caught up in all that French Revolution stuff about being a hard-liner for Capital-É Égalité.
And remarkably, this comes through in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Many of the Marquise de Merteuil’s letters — practically all of the sincere ones — make reference to the fraught position women held with respect to the sexual double-standard (ideas that would be echoed, say, by Wollstonecraft): Valmont is happy to be reputed a cad, while Merteuil must exercise the utmost care in her dalliances to ensure that she never leaves her lovers in a position to discredit her — indeed, there’s a parallel plot thread in the novel rarely included in adaptations (Though it somehow makes its way into the plot of Cruel Intentions 3) that not much prior to Valmont’s assault of Cécile, Merteuil had allowed herself to be seduced by another infamous philanderer, and disposed of him by falsely accusing him of rape. When she advises Cécile to take Valmont as a lover, she explains that their culture grants few enough advantages to women, and that she ought to enjoy them. It reminds me a bit of Iago warning Othello about, “the green-eyed monster”: yes, she’s deliberately misleading and abusing Cécile to her own ends, but what she’s actually saying is still a hard truth she’s learned from experience.
And how about that Urkeling? Remember the cliché of the Urkel: the character pursues relentlessly, ignores rejection, and eventually wins the girl largely because he’s “paid his dues”, as though a woman were like a twelfth-level spell that you’re due once you’ve grinded enough XP. And we are meant to accept and approve of this because he’s a “nice guy” who loves her way more than those handsome but immature jocks and bad boys she keeps dating, and she would totally see that if she weren’t such a shallow bitch.
But does Valmont measure up on that scale? It starts out well enough, only halfway through, it all kind of falls apart. Valmont is not a “nice guy”. Valmont is a cad. His love is not pure; it’s a pretense. He isn’t way better for her, and she isn’t more interested in shallow, attractive jocks (Her husband never appears in person, but he’s apparently much older and seems for all the world
like a stand-up guy). The Urkel Plot is about a woman who needs to be made better by learning to accept the love of a suitor deemed unworthy. That is just about the furthest thing in the world from what happens in Les Liaisons Dangereuses: lowering herself to love Valmont is Tourvel’s undoing. Becoming a better man (Valmont commits himself to charitable acts to help rehabilitate his image) and legitimately falling in love is Valmont’s salvation, insofar as anyone in this story can be “saved”. This is practically a parody of an Urkel plot.
And that, in large part, is what I like about it. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is not a love story. It is not even a story about sex. It is not a story that cares about loveIn fact, there’s a charming little footnote in the novel to Letter 39, where Cécile declares to a friend from school her intention from this point on to write to Danceny to, “only talk to him of my love,” and cut out all the intriguey bullshit. To this, a footnote explains, “We shall hereafter suppress Cécile Volanges and Chevalier Danceny’s letters, being uninteresting.” It is a story about power and control. In fact, this odd little eighteenth century French novel does more to indict rape culture than you see in most modern works. Valmont pulls out every trick from the Nice Guy handbook, but unlike Xander Harris or Ross Gellar or Steve Urkel, the narrative doesn’t demand that we go along with it: it tells us from the start that he’s a jerk and an asshole who’s manipulating and abusing people. It completely dismisses the popular rape-apologetic myth of the “boner werewolf”: all Valmont’s protests about being unable to control his passions are transparent lies, and even his rape of Cécile is very explicitly about power rather than passion. Liaisons does what most depictions of sexual predation drop the ball on, and remains clear that Valmont’s treatment of women is not based around an uncontrollable sexual desire, but rather around a rapacious ideology. It’s not about getting his end away, or even about something as banal as collecting a list of conquests, but about what he can compel out of people. In Dangerous Liaisons, for instance, Tourvel’s maid Julie offers herself to him when he threatens to expose her affair with Azolan, but he’s utterly uninterested: what he wants out of that conquest isn’t sex but inside information. In a minor side-plot of the novel (Which hasn’t been included in any of the adaptations I’ve seen), he manages, just to prove he can, to shag a Vicountess while her husband and her boyfriend are downstairs, then convinces her to fake a robbery attempt to help him cover his presence, and then gets her boyfriend to shag him in gratitude for his “heroism”.
They may be framed as libertines, but the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are practically Ayn Rand characters, ruled not by their passions but by their philosophies. And apparently (per French author and statesman André Malraux), they’re the first characters in European literature to be like that. But unlike actual Ayn Rand characters, we’re supposed to despise them for it. Like a pair of Sith Lords, they pull strings and arrange events such that forwarding their goals becomes the best interest of their victims. Only flirt with those you intend to refuse; then you acquire a reputation for invincibility, whilst slipping safely away with the lover of your choice. A poor choice is less dangerous than an obvious choice. Never write letters. Get them to write letters. Always be sure they think they’re the only one. Win or die. —Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1985), Act I, Sc. 4 Victory for Valmont is for the target of his game to willingly give him what he wants. For Merteuil, it’s to convince her victim that he’s taken what he wanted, only to find that claiming his prize will be his own destruction.
And yet… Valmont is capable of true love, even if it undoes him. And it’s difficult to argue with Merteuil’s logic about her own position and pursuits. If there is a moral lesson to be found in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and I’m not entirely sure there is, perhaps it’s this: that Valmont and Merteuil are not evil simply because of some flaw in their characters or some stain in their souls or because their hearts are two sizes too small. Rather, they are evil because they are part of a society which shapes their particular inclinations and tendencies into something evil. Merteuil must play the manipulative seductress because for an aristocratic woman in France in 1782, the only publicly acknowledged relationship between a man and a woman must be one of subjugation. Valmont must play the cad because for an aristocratic man in France in 1782, masculinity can not be separated from conquest.
Each adaptation brings something very different. The 1959 version feels to me like it takes a certain amount of influence from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s the only version where there seems to be some genuine — though twisted — affection between Valmont and Merteuil, and they spend much of the movie coming off genuinely as co-conspirators rather than rivals. “The Valmont I loved was a gentleman. Mrs. Tourvel gave me back a husband.” —Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959)You get a distinct sense of Juliette’s feeling of betrayal when Valmont falls in love with Marianne. The evolution of that relationship also feels very natural, but does so without making Valmont sympathetic. The movie is heavily stylized according to the conventions of French cinema of the period, and yet the characters strangely real, simultaneously terrible and human.
The stageplay has the best sense of humor. Its version of Merteuil is the most reprehensible, even without the side-plot about Prevan. Dangerous Liaisons is mostly a direct adaptation of the play, but it adds several scenes and retools the ending. I think the ending of the movie, Merteuil being publicly shamed at the opera due to the publication of Valmont’s letters, is very strong, but it trades accessibility for some of the power of the play’s ending, in which Merteuil’s situation is left precarious, but not public: Danceny gives the letters to Valmont’s aunt, who is, for the moment, content to let the threat of their release dangle over Merteuil’s head like some kind of dangerous over-head dangling thing the name of which escapes me for the moment. Dangerous Liaisons is also in many ways a deliberately ugly movie. One of the reasons I never remarried, despite a quite bewildering range of offers, was the determination never again to be ordered around. I decided if I felt like telling a lie, I’d rather do it for fun than because I had no alternative. So I must ask you to adopt a less marital tone of voice. —Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Act II, Sc. 16 Everyone looks stiff and pallid all the time. It’s like they’re all being slowly choked, which, of course, they are (And there’s even a short take where Valmont spies on Tourvel as she removes her restrictive corset. He looks away before she shows any skin: it is enough to see her breathe freely), not just by fashion, but by the ritual and obligations of society. And while the bulk of the movie, like the play, depicts Merteuil as heartless and manipulative, Dangerous Liaisons is the only version to depict her as mourning Valmont.
Valmont is far lighter and fluffier. It really strips the story of a lot of its power and seems to think that it’s just doing period romance with a bit of intrigue. Now you sound just like my husband. Do you want to know why I never remarried? So that no one could ever claim they had any rights over me at all. —Valmont But Annette Benning’s Merteuil is really a wonderfully charming psychopath, unlike the more straightforward villain Glenn Close played. It makes up for the extent to which it misses the point by being really rather beautiful, capturing the grandeur of the Ancien Régime rather than its oppressiveness. It also has a strangely forgiving ending. Sure, Valmont still dies, but Tourvel survives, and is forgiven by her husband. Rather than returning to the convent, Cécile goes through with the marriage to Gercourt, secretly carrying Valmont’s child. And since Valmont’s letters and his deathbed confession to Danceny are omitted, Merteuil isn’t exposed: only Cécile and her mother know the truth, and Cécile’s pregnancy makes it impossible for them to say anything. Merteuil would seem to win outright in this ending, though we’re left with the impression that she’ll ultimately find her victory a hollow one.
It might seem strange, even crass, to adapt a story like this into a Teen Movie, but weirdly, I actually think that Cruel Intentions is the version that does the best by the plot. If we look for just a second at the highest-level overview of the story, what is it? On a dare, a handsome, popular boy seduces an innocent girl, only to fall legitimately in love with her. It’s already the plot of every teen movie! Only, just as with the “Urkel Plot”, it’s subversive. The boy doesn’t get the girl in the end, and the girl isn’t better off for it.
More than that, for all Cruel Intentions might seem at first blush to be a cheap Mildly Scandalous Sexy Sexy Teenagers Acting Badly High-Budget Exploitation movie (A slightly more cerebral and less visceral version of its close contemporary, Wild Things), it’s really remarkably engaged with its source material, and that’s what elevates this version in my estimation. You came to make arrangements, but I don’t fuck losers. Goodbye, Sebastian.— Cruel IntentionsThe more you know about the history of adaptations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the more clear it it is that they carefully picked and chose the strongest features of what came before.
There. Another shirtless Peter Capaldi picture. You’re welcome, ladies.
The side-plot where Sebastian conscripts Greg to get inside information on Annette (Who, I now assume, is named in honor of the actress who played Tourvel in the 1959 version) by catching him in bed with Blaine is taken from Dangerous Liaisons: in all of the other versions of the story, Julie is an off-screen character, her conscription being handled entirely by Azolan. The end of the film, Kathryn’s public shaming by the disapproving audience at Sebastian’s funeral, is also clearly taken from Dangerous Liaisons.
Sebastian’s death, being killed by accident in a brawl, seems to be drawn from the 1959 film. So too is his seduction of Cecile, which is certainly manipulative, but is far less forceful than in the other adaptations. Valmont and Merteuil themselves aren’t the strongest characters, though. Sebastian isn’t evil enough and Kathryn is too shallow. She seems drawn mostly from Valmont, a charming psychopath with little humanity to her. Her motivations have been reduced to the somewhat banal “Boys keep dumping her in favor of less intelligent girls,” but even this is kind of vague. I had to watch it like three times before I actually caught any explanation for why she was out to ruin Cecile. Neither one of them do a whole lot of philandering despite their reputations, though there’s an early scene where Sebastian publicly humiliates the daughter of his therapist (Played by Swoosie Kurtz, the only actress to appear in two of these) via revenge porn, a concept novel enough in 1998 that it didn’t seem like a tremendously banal form of douchebaggery. Simplifying the characters like this makes the story altogether safer and less problematic than the other adaptations, but I think it’s a fair exchange as it lowers the barrier to entry.
But I’ve spent about five thousand words now without really justifying why I think Les Liaisons Dangereuses is on-topic for this blog that, at least in general, is about eschatological fiction. Perhaps you’ve figured it out by now? The answer, to my surprise, only becomes explicit in one version of the story. Remember that quote from the end of the Night Moves article?
“A new year tomorrow and more than halfway through the eighties already. I used to be afraid of growing old, but now I trust in God and accept. I dare say we would not be wrong to look forward to whatever the nineties may bring. Meanwhile, I suggest our best course is to continue with the game.” Act II. Sc. 18
Here’s the thing. Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a story about the end of the world. It just doesn’t know it.
That line I quoted above is the last line of dialogue in the play. Recall that in the stageplay, unlike the 1959, 1988, and 1998 movies, we don’t actually get to see Merteuil’s downfall. There’s no big public scene at the end where her deeds are brought to light and the public gets to point and cry out “For shame!” And you would be forgiven for thinking that’s very, very strange, particularly in light of how utterly unsympathetic this version of Merteuil is.
After reporting on the disfigurement, bankruptcy, and exile of M. de Merteuil in a letter from Madame de Volanges to Valmont’s aunt, the book version abruptly ends with this footnote:
Private reasons and considerations, which we shall ever make it a duty to respect, force us to halt here.
We cannot, at this moment, give our reader the continuation of Madamoiselle de Volanges’ adventures (Given that the last we hear of Madamoiselle de Volanges is a report that she’s about to take holy orders, this hints at a tantalizing last-minute plot twist), nor acquaint him with the sinister events which culminated the misfortunes, or completed the punishment, of Madame de Merteuil — Footnote to letter 175
But, if you know your history, maybe you can guess what those “sinister events” were, and why we don’t actually need Merteuil to face anything as banal as public shaming in the play. She’s alluded to it. I dare say, Mme. La Marquise de Merteuil would not be wrong to look forward to what the nineties will bring. That quote above is the last line of dialogue in the play. After it is a final stage direction:
Her words seem to exert a calming effect on her companions: and indeed, they resume playing [cards]. The atmosphere is serene. Very slowly, the lights fade; but just before they vanish, there appears on the back wall, fleeting but sharp, the unmistakable silhouette of the guillotine.
What the characters don’t know, what Laclos himself didn’t know, was that this system, which, it should be obvious, could not possibly last, wasn’t going to last. On July 14, 1789, after months of negotiations on a new constitution and new tax code, after years of financial crisis, insurgents stormed and raided the state prison at Bastille Saint-Antoine. By August, feudalism in France was formally dismantled. Two years later, France’s first constitution stripped King Louis XVI of most of his powers and established a tightly limited constitutional monarchy, and on January 21, 1793, they decided to go a step further and strip him of his head.
There are those who believe that Les Liaisons Dangereuses was to the French Revolution what Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be to the American Civil War. It’s possible to read the book as a celebration of libertinism among the French Aristocracy — to be sure, Valmont and Merteuil are punished in the end, but it’s perfunctory. Certainly, the book was popular among the aristocracy. But I think it requires a certain amount of missing the point. Not that the idea of Marie Antoinette missing the point of a book like this is especially hard to imagine. Even if Laclos had no particular political agenda in mind, though, just the bare description of the habits of these people is enough to condemn them: if you work your way through all one hundred and seventy-five letters, you would be forgiven for being totally okay with the idea of pretty much everyone getting their heads chopped off. It doesn’t take anything away from the culpability of Valmont and Merteuil in their own sins to name the whole of the Ancien Régime as an accomplice.
When you get right down to it, that’s what elevates Les Liaisons Dangereuses above the level of just being a (admittedly, very well-written) study of hedonism and the landlord class behaving badly. Laclos was in the right place at the right time that his story about two aristocrats toying with the lives of their peers is really a story about a society that has become so overbalanced that it can’t possibly last much longer. I’m not talking about some kind of puritanical “The Ancien Régime fell because they were corrupt and decadent and more interested in sex than in maintaining the might of their empire,” bullshit. Rather, it’s a society that has concentrated its resources so tightly that there is simply nothing left to take except each other: notice that there’s hardly any non-aristocratic characters. This isn’t a story about the nobles abusing the commoners because there’s nothing for them to gain out of it: they’ve already gotten it. It’s a story about the rich and powerful eating their own now that they’ve eaten everything else.
And if that’s true of the Ancien Régime in 1780s France, what might it mean when the story is retold about the children of the 1% in modern New York?
One final postscript. In 2013, Les Liaisons Dangereuses was adapted letter-for-letter by Marc Oliver into the most modern of epistolary formats as Dangerous Tweets, available from whatthefrench.com. Aside from a use of hashtags that feels less like actual tweets and more like daytime news anchors trying to sound hip, I highly recommend it for the way it distills the whole content of the original novel, losing very little content while condensing it into byte-size pieces.
- Being several hundred years old, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is out of copyright, and the full text of Thomas Moore’s translation is available from Project Gutenberg.
- Personally, though, I prefer the Ernest Dowson translation, which is available in a rather nice New York Public Library edition which includes etchings by Sylvain Sauvage. It’s available from amazon.
- Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont, and Cruel Intentions are available from amazon.
- Les Liaisons Dangereuses 1960 is watchable on YouTube.