This film won three Oscars (for costumes, adapted screenplay, and art decoration), but none of them have any relation to why you might want to see this film today. Don't get me wrong, it is a quality film, but costume dramas are a dime a dozen.
The reason to see this film can be encapsulated in two words: Uma Thurman. She plays Cecile de Volanges, a naive, easily manipulated young girl. And is she ever manipulated!!
John Makovich plays Valmont, a lecherous cad who specializes in seducing young virgins. Glenn Close is Marquise Isabelle de Mertreuil. Valmont and Mertreuil used to be together, and they remain friends (their "friendship" is somewhat murky and may be more or less than that). Mertreuil now wants to ask a favor of Valmont.
The favor comes about like this: Mertreuil used to date the absent Garcourt, who does not appear in this film. Garcourt is engaged to the tender young Cecile (Thurman). Merteuil is somewhat bitter about things, and wants to get even somehow.
That is where Valmont comes in. Mertreuil asks him to seduce Cecile, thereby getting her revenge on Garcourt.
Valmont, though, falls in love with someone else entirely, Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Tourvel happens to be married, religious, and completely unavailable. Mertreuil and Valmont make a wager on whether he can seduce her.
Anyway, that is the story. Keanu Reeves plays somebody or other as well, but he looks lost and barely registers. All the sexual intrigue is somewhat difficult to follow, as Valmont seems to be after all the ladies regardless of wagers and so on and so forth, but we wisely always are directed back to the main conquest. Malkovich can be a bit tiresome with all his "Oh, I'm such a great lover" blatherings, but that is the character, like it or not, and he does give us what we all want in the end. Close is just tiresome, and the dresses she is forced to wear are hideous. It's not as scandalous as it no doubt was originally (a big deal is made about writing letters to significant others on their lovers' backs, which I'm sure was considered quite the dis back in the day) but the proceedings still have an impact.
As I said, that reason is Uma. It is not that she is a great actress, far from it. Quite simply she is captured here at the peak of her beauty. Uma is exquisite in this, her breakthrough role. At one point, she goes topless, and, if you are into that sort of thing, it is well worth sitting through the somewhat tedious back-and-forth between Valmont and Montreuil. There are hints of intimacies between Montreuil and Cecile, but that is more suggestive physical posturing due to the manners of the day than anything else.
Uma recently said that she wishes she had not taken on the role. "I could not stand being the inflatable sex doll everyone wanted me to be. I was naive, sexually, when I made that film and it felt paralysing to be thrust in to this overtly sexual image which had nothing to do with who I was," said Thurman. Of course, she doesn't mind the fame and riches that accrued to her as result. It is, of course, just that naivete that makes her scenes worth watching today. Having become a big success, now she wishes she hadn't had to take the "degrading" roles that got her there. Sorry, Uma, for every Jane Fonda there's a "Barbarella." I think she'll appreciate what she did in "Dangerous Liaisons" when she gets older - and wiser.
The romance between the Pfeiffer and Malkovich characters is just a distraction from the main story.
There is a weird ending designed, I think, to show that crime does not pay or something like that. You probably won't care one way or the other. I sure didn't.
All the bowing and hand-kissing and stiff clothes gets old after a while. Just keep your eye on Uma, and you'll be fine.
There are other versions of this tale, some more recent, but this remains the best. Recommended viewing if you desire to see Uma in her prime.