Monday, October 15, 2012

Dangerous Liaisons (1988) - Uma, Uma, Uma

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 film poster
Dangerous Liaisons (1988).

Dangerous Liaisons (1988), directed by Stephen Frears, won three Oscars (for costumes, adapted screenplay, and art decoration), but none of the Oscars have any relation to why you might want to see "Dangerous Liaisons" today. Don't get me wrong, "Dangerous Liaisons" is a quality film, chock full of quality actors and production people, but costume dramas are a dime a dozen.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman John Malkovich
Valmont and Cécile de Volanges.

The reason to see "Dangerous Liaisons" can be encapsulated in two words: Uma Thurman. Uma plays Cécile de Volanges, a naive, easily manipulated young girl. And is she ever manipulated!!

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Glenn Close Uma Thurman
Glenn Close and Uma Thurman in "Dangerous Liaisons."

John Malkovich plays Vicomte de Valmont, a classic French rake who specializes in seducing young virgins. Glenn Close plays Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil, a woman of high means and low morals. Valmont and Merteuil used to be together, and they remain friends (their "friendship" is somewhat murky and may be more or less than that). Although Merteuil apparently dumped Valmont in the past, now she wants to ask a favor of him. However, it is a bit complicated.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman John Malkovich

The favor comes about like this: Merteuil used to date the absent Comte de Gercourt, who does not appear in this film (one of the reasons "Dangerous Liaisons" is unnecessarily confusing). Gercourt is engaged to the tender young Cécile (Thurman), who is staying with Merteuil. Merteuil is somewhat bitter about things being dumped by Gercourt, and wants to get even somehow with her former lover while he is away and cannot defend his woman. Cécile, just out of a convent, unwisely trusts Merteuil and repeatedly goes to her for advice, making Merteuil's scheme to ruin her reputation a true betrayal.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman

That is where Valmont comes in. Merteuil knows all about Valmont's reputation and wishes to use his skill to her advantage. She asks Valmont to seduce Cécile, thereby getting her revenge on Gercourt. Valmont, though, is hesitant and wants something in return. Merteuil and Valmont thus make a wager on whether Valmont can seduce Cécile. Merteuil promises to sleep with Valmont if he succeeds in his quest of seducing Cécile. Valmont, who wants to sleep with all the ladies regardless of whether they are married or engaged or whatever, then goes to work.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 John Malkovich Uma Thurman
Valmont at work in "Dangerous Liaisons."

Along the way, though, Valmont falls in love with someone else entirely, Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Tourvel happens to be married, religious, and completely unavailable. Merteuil and Valmont modify their bet to include Tourvel. Valmont succeeds and fails at his various quests, and how he succeeds and fails forms the balance of the tale.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman
Uma Thurman plays the vixenish Cécile de Volanges.

Anyway, that is the story. Keanu Reeves plays somebody or other as well (a suitor of Cécile), 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, and it is unclear what difference it makes to the original wager if Valmont also seduces Tourvel. Regardless, we wisely are directed back to the main conquest - Valmont taking Cécile - at every turn. Malkovich can be a bit tiresome with all his "Oh, I'm such a great lover" and "Oh, it is all out of my control" blatherings, but that is the character, like it or not, and Valmont does give us what we all want in the end. Close is just tiresome, and the dresses she is forced to wear are hideous. "Dangerous Liaisons" is not nearly 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.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman
Uma Thurman and John Malkovich during an intimate moment in "Dangerous Liaisons."

As I said, the sole reason to watch "Dangerous Liaisons" today is Uma as Cécile de Volanges. It is not that Uma Thurman is a great thespian in "dangerous Liaisons," far from it, though she is perfectly adequate for the part and exceptional in its physical attributes. Quite simply, "Dangerous Liaisons" captures Uma at the peak of her bountiful beauty. Uma is exquisite in this, her breakthrough role. At one point, Uma 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 Monteuil and Valmont and Tourvel and this one with that one to get to the big seduction scene. There also are hints of intimacies between Monteuil and Cecile, but that is more suggestive physical posturing due to the manners of the day than anything else. In other words, the filmmakers tease us with the promise of more than they ever have any intention of delivering.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 John Malkovich
Valmont is quite the ladies man in "Dangerous Liaisons."

Uma recently said that she wishes she had not taken on the role of Cécile:
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 into this overtly sexual image which had nothing to do with who I was.
How pious. Well, many actresses who bare their bodies on camera to advance their careers later wish the negatives would catch fire, and it would be quite easy to reel off a list of their names (it would start with Alyssa Milano). Of course, Uma doesn't mind the fame and riches that accrued to her as result of this breakthrough role, so her attitude is a tad self-serving or even perhaps naive ("I would have become a superstar anyway" is probably her view, but those are not her words). It is, of course, just that naivete of Uma that makes her scenes in "Dangerous Liaisons" 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" that raised their profile. I think Uma may appreciate what she did in "Dangerous Liaisons" when she gets older - and wiser.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman
Uma's Cécile de Volanges likes to pluck the harp in "dangerous Liaisons."

The romance between the Pfeiffer and Malkovich characters is just a distraction from the main story of seduction. Some viewers love it, while I found it just more useless padding to an over-burdened script.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988
There are many intriguing bedroom scenes in "Dangerous Liaisons."

There is a weird ending to "Dangerous Liaisons" that is designed, I think, to show that crime does not pay or something like that. You bad, evil, wicked people must pay for your sins! You probably won't care one way or the other who gets slain in the end, because that has nothing to do with the true attractions of "Dangerous Liaisons." I sure didn't.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman
Uma Thurman is radiant in her "Dangerous Liaisons" drawing room scenes.

With that said, all the bowing and hand-kissing and stiff clothes gets old after awhile as you wait for the next seduction scene. "Dangerous Liaisons" is very talky, and not in a good drawing-room-comedy way. Manners are formal and people march about like robots except for the sparse romantic interludes. These heighten the romantic scenes' freshness and makes them stand out like a spot of color in a sea of black-and-white, but leaves you wishing them to just get on with it in between as they walk around the grounds talking or drive their carriages from this manor house to the next and so on. There also is - strictly in my opinion, mind you, and you may disagree - a decided attractiveness gap between Close and Thurman which makes all the focus on Close a bit annoying, especially as she rattles off pompous lines of female empowerment (while her character actually undermines it). Just keep your eye on Uma, and you'll be fine.

Dangerous Liaisons 1988 Uma Thurman Glenn Close
There is all sorts of unnecessary posturing and posing in "Dangerous Liaisons." To be fair, this likely was common during the period in which the film is set and is historically accurate. Yet, one gets the impression that the filmmakers are trying to imply things that they don't intend to flesh out, and at times the artificial poses almost become farcical in their own right.

There are other versions of "Dangerous Liaisons," some more recent and perhaps a bit less tedious, but this remains the best for the reasons given above. "Dangerous Liaisons" is recommended viewing if you desire to see Uma in her prime, otherwise I would skip it.


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