Imagine France around the 1760’s. Everything is so elaborate with a thousand ruffles, powdered wigs and no one can get a breath of fresh air with their girdles so tight. Sounds stale and boring as their afternoon conversations, right? Well, it’s surprisingly anything but once the games of lust and seduction start.
That’s right, these horny French aristocrats get bored and amuse themselves by taking bets to see what virtuous maidens they can seduce. All while keeping their well bred eloquent speech in tact. Honestly, I groaned while reading the Netflix summary and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie right from the start. In that first scene, Malkovich saunters in, leans on a fancy couch and turns his head to casually stare at a young woman’s blossoming bosom. It only gets better.
The all star cast is delightful. We’ve got Glen Close and John Malkovich as the ring leaders and their play things Michelle Pheiffer, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves. Yes, they have character names, but the thing is, they don’t stick since they’re very French and proper. Close and Malkovich are both rich and powerful, they know how to play society’s games to have anything and anyone. They’re ex-lovers as well, extra spicy. Anyway, they hear Thurman is set to marry one of Close’s ex-lovers. Close wants Malkovich to seduce the virtuous Thurman so that her ex will be humiliated. Close also makes a more challenging bet with Malkovich, to seduce a devoted married woman (played by Michelle Pheifer). If he succeeds, his reward is one last night with Close. He sets off and uses Thurman as a pawn in an elaborate game of deceit, blackmail and lust.
Sounds like fun, huh? It is! It’s hard to imagine that underneath all the powder and ruffles are these red-blooded conniving beings that take so much pleasure in power and suffering. But both Close and Malkovich play their characters with such proper gusto. Their long winded proper aristocrat speech can feel stuffy and steamy at the same time. It’s full of wit and diabolical emotion, something many actors in similar roles would let fall flat, like old balloons. It’s sheer joy to watch these two greats play off each other like a big French game of cat and mouse.
It’s not all just talking either, this is about lust and seduction so this film can’t shy away at the bedroom scenes. One of the most poignant details for me was that after a conquest, more than once, one partner will write a letter to their rightful partner in bed on their lover’s bare back. How can an affair get juicier than that?
I really cannot recommend Dangerous Liaisons enough. The historical setting is perfect; any adaption more modern would be a horrible injustice and could make it as cliché as American Pie. The acting is wonderful, the story is as meaty and succulent as a perfect steak. Not to mention, the obviously deserved Oscars for art direction and costume design. Grown ups, ditch the raunchy teen comedy for a night and get your kicks in a more sophisticated way. You won’t regret it.
“I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that is most important to her.”
***This is my pick for 1988. Rain Man is good, but Dangerous Liaisons is just more enjoyable all around.***