First, it’s hard to believe this picture is 30 years old, it has more than stood the test of time. After some edgy, risky and well-received 20th century stories (My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid) director Stephen Frears brought us Dangerous Liaisons adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’s 18th century novel of the same name. Lush and sumptuous, this is a delight for the senses. Oscar-winning art direction, costumes and make up are like platinum settings for the bright, glittering jewels that are Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer in this epic battle of the sexes.
Said to be the first psychological novel, the Oscar-winning screenplay from which it is adapted provides ferocious and deliciously timeless insight regarding relations between men, women and society.
Marquise de Merteuil: ” When I came out into society, I was fifteen. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while, under the table, I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn’t pleasure I was after, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with. And in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. ”
Close, in an Oscar-nominated performance manages to imbue this and many other vicious and bitter diatribes with humor, sympathy and intelligence so that what appears as very rigid and militant on the page becomes lively, piquant and on point when uttered in her character’s milieu. It is quite a spell-binding tour de force that horrifies and delights at the same time. Malkovich does fantastically well as her sparring partner, but this is Close’s film. Malkovich and Close are at their peak form and seem to relish the unpleasantness they unleash upon each other and everyone around them. Pfeiffer never looked more beautiful on screen and she is breath-taking and believable in a thankless role. Much as I hate to say it, however, Keanu Reeves seems unfortunately miscast in his role and while he seems to try his best it is difficult to look past his familiar persona. I suppose he is the flaw in an otherwise perfect jewel that shows its nature-made rarity. I’m a fan, otherwise, and will usually stand up for him.
Heady stuff, but make no mistake, as delectable as this is it is a battle to the death. Who will survive, and at what price? Throughout the picture we are kept at the edge of our seats as we marvel at these character’s machinations.