What to do when you’ve got an NBN outage and can’t stream? Go back to your DVD collection of course. I thought I’d re-watch one of my all-time favourite movies, this witty and brilliantly acted period drama that starts as deliciously wicked and ends as a tragedy.
Though I’ve seen it many times, it only occurred to me now that the film is bookended by the close-ups of a woman observing herself in a mirror. The woman in question is Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close), a wealthy widow living in Paris just before the French Revolution. As the movie begins, she gives her reflection a self-satisfied and somewhat malevolent smile of an evil stepmother from a fairy-tale, before it’s time for the elaborate aristocratic morning ritual of getting dressed, coiffed and powdered. The same sequence introduces the other irresistible villain of the movie, Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), cutting between them as if they were two soldiers readied for battle by their servants.
The Marquise and Valmont were once lovers, and are a match made in, well, certainly not heaven. Unscrupulous and narcissistic, they seem to spend most of their time on elaborate games of manipulation and seduction, and both prize victory above everything else. During Valmont’s social visit, the Marquise asks him for a favour to help her take revenge on a former lover who ended their relationship. Could Valmont seduce and deflower her ex-lover’s fiancée, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), a virginal convent girl chosen specifically for her purity? But Valmont scoffs at the assignment: it’s simply too easy and he’s got his professional pride and reputation to protect.
Instead, Valmont sets himself a much harder seduction to pull off: Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), a devoutly religious married woman known for her fidelity. Amused at his hubris, the Marquise promises Valmont that if somehow he succeeds and can provide written proof, she’ll spend a night with him as well. When Valmont discovers that Cécile’s mother has been meddling in his attempts to ingratiate himself with Madame de Tourvel, he’s annoyed enough to promise the Marquise that he’ll disgrace Cécile after all. Win-win for both!
There’s a lot to love about the movie – the ravishing costumes and production design, the country estates, oh-so-very-young Keanu Reeves as Cécile’s music teacher. I’ve always loved it most for the witty, razor-sharp dialogue, which feels almost like tennis matches with words, and the marvellous central performances. Casting John Malkovich as Valmont must have been a risky move at the time; his features don’t exactly come to mind when you think of a grand seducer. But he gives Valmont a darker, dangerous edge, and though no Adonis his character’s got enough confidence, experience, psychological astuteness and sheer force of personality to make his erotic conquests believable. Next to him, Pfeiffer’s porcelain beauty, and the goodness and sincerity of Madame de Tourvel, shine even brighter. I appreciated her performance even more on this re-watch, considering that “pure and good” can be synonymous with “boring” which she never is in this movie.
Marquise de Merteuil however is the film’s richest and most compelling character, and one of my personal favourite onscreen villains. Self-centred and often cruel, she’s certainly not meant to inspire sympathy, but she’s a formidable opponent and a masterful player, able to slay with one withering remark. Underneath the Marquise’s polished society manners and smiles, there’s seething anger at being imprisoned by her womanhood, in a society where her intelligence and brilliance can find no other outlet than the manipulative games she’s playing. Close’s performance is simply stunning; at times deftly comical, then devastating in the emotionally heavy scenes further into the story. That things could go from the light and frothy opening to the deep passion and tragedy of the ending comes as a surprise to both the characters and the audience.
All in all, while losing internet for a day was a nuisance, I’m glad it gave me the chance to relish this classic all over again.
P.S. Now I kinda want to re-watch Cruel Intentions, the 1999 teen spin on Dangerous Liaisons, which may not have had the same gravitas but was, from memory, good trashy fun.