LESLIAISONSDANGEREUS_previe_mainstory1

By Lesley Brill.

In Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (most of the plot of which Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons follows faithfully), love and passion dominate religion until the end. Concluding his epistolary novel, however, Laclos sends Cécile de Volanges back to the convent to become a nun and visits upon the Marquise de Merteuil smallpox that leaves her “fearfully disfigured” and costs her an eye – an outcome that looks very much like God’s retributive wrath. Beyond their roles as purveyors of passion and scandal, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil are blasphemers. Anticipating his seduction of the pious Présidente de Tourvel, Valmont boasts, “I shall truly be the God whom she has preferred” (Laclos 1940: 13). Similarly, the Marquise: “Behold me, like the Divinity, receiving the diverse petitions of blind mortals, and altering nothing in my immutable decrees” (ibid.: 117). But at the end of the novel, Père Anselm and social and religious rectitude pretty much emerge victorious.

Frears’s movie retains only traces of the conflict between piety and passion that animates Laclos’s novel, mainly in the character of Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is introduced wearing a gold cross on a bosom more hinted at than displayed. When religion does enter the action, it is twisted into a tool for passion. Père Anselm functions in the film less as a priest than as an unwitting Pander, supplying for Valmont (John Malkovich) the access to Madame de Tourvel that allows him to complete his conquest.[1] In pursuit of the happily married Tourvel, Valmont performs an act – in both senses of the word – of charity to endear himself to the object of his desire. In addition, religion provides a few occasions for cinematic jokes, as when Valmont, moving on from his deflowering of Cécile to her carnal education, says to her, “We might begin with one or two Latin terms”; Frears instantly cuts to a priest at communion, intoning what we can be sure is a very different Latin vocabulary. Valmont then arrives to trap Madame de Tourvel by sitting beside her in her pew.

The struggle between earthly and heavenly love, amor and caritas, that runs through the novel, explicitly and as subtext, changes in Frears’s Dangerous Liaisons to a conflict between what could be called innocent love – that is, love without ambitions for ego gratification or social advancement – and self-aggrandizing passion. The latter finds its energy in vanity, in sensual pleasure for its own sake, and in an unending striving for conquests and power. These motives are present in the novel as well, but there they are finally defeated by caritas. The main opponent of passion in the movie, secular true love, like caritas in the novel, also often works as a subtext or is explicitly suppressed until it, again like Christian love in Les Liaisons dangereuses, asserts itself tragically at the end of the film.

Fig. A
Fig. A

The quietly spectacular opening credit sequence of Dangerous Liaisons announces central themes of pride and privilege. It begins with white-on-black star credits and a close-up of feminine hands unsealing a paper to reveal the movie’s title. This is accompanied by a music track that invokes Alfred Hitchcock (more about that later). The Hitchcockian music gives way to period instruments and melody, and the credits continue as the camera produces a lingering mirror-shot of the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) inspecting herself [Fig. A]. In the frame, in shadow, we see also the back of her head. Since close-ups including two figures will be used systematically to indicate intimacy, this image may be taken to indicate that the one to whom she is closest is herself.

Fig. B
Fig. B

Alternating in the crosscutting that accompanies the rest of the credits are shots of the elaborate morning costuming, by multiple servants, of the Marquise and Valmont. The sequence ends with the latter, now a work of sartorial and cosmetic art, arriving at the Parisian mansion of Merteuil. As Frears’s credit appears, Valmont is observed from a window by Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), who will become one of his amorous victims and who perhaps serves here as a wry emblem for the director – looking on wide eyed, wondering what the future with these people may bring [Fig. B].

The morning rituals of the Marquise and Valmont illuminate close connections among vanity, social standing, and wealth. The editing shows at once the distance from each other of the two central figures and their likeness. There is an obvious gap in status and power between Merteuil and Valmont on the one hand and, on the other, their attending servants, sleek little pilot fish to the ruling sharks. Elias Canetti argued that power seeks or creates isolation, and Northrop Frye observed that separation from society is a defining theme of tragedy (Canetti 1973: 227ff; Frye 1957: 35ff, 206ff). Add to those ideas Denis de Rougemont’s “the passion of love is at bottom narcissism, the lover’s self-magnification,” and we have a compound lens well configured to reveal much of the significance of Frears’s film (Rougemont 1940: 260).

Chez Merteuil, Valmont meets Cécile and frivolously uses her to offend her mother, the self-righteous Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), by patting her daughter’s behind and staring openly at her breasts. (Madame de Volanges has just described him, when he was announced but before he appeared, as a charming but thoroughly destructive and disreputable personage, who is nonetheless received by “everyone,” including herself.) The mother responds to Valmont’s arrival by shepherding her daughter out of the presence of this ruiner of women, as she will later describe him in a letter to Madame de Tourvel. Left to themselves, Merteuil and Valmont are amused by her retreat, and they continue conversing like the long-time co-conspirators (and, more problematically, lovers) they are. “No,” Merteuil corrects Valmont, “deceit” is not her favorite word; rather it’s “cruelty.” Her governing rule for living is simple, “Win or die,” a motto that is equally applicable to her companion.

To win, to achieve the repute that he seeks by seducing the virtuous Madame de Tourvel, Valmont begins, traditionally, by seeming to relinquish his power. As he says in Les Liaisons dangereuses, “that illusive authority, which we have the appearance of allowing women to seize, is one of the snares which they find it most difficult to elude” (Laclos 1940: 73). His siege begins when he declares to Tourvel that it is his weakness that has caused him to reveal his love for her, a love that harbors no illicit ambitions. He later takes on the role of a defeated, reproachful lover reduced to depression; and he finally breaches her defenses with abject declarations of suffering and threats of suicide.

The outcome appears to be vanity victorious. Madame de Tourvel promises, “No more refusals, no more regrets,” and sinks back on her bed in Valmont’s arms. Frears then cuts to the conqueror bounding up Merteuil’s stairs: “Success! Success!” He is there to claim his payment for a wager: if he succeeds in seducing Tourvel, Merteuil will accept him back in her bed. That reward, however, she withholds, on the technicality that she requires written evidence. In truth, she refuses because she guesses (with some dismay) that Valmont genuinely loves his victim, an understanding of himself that he does not yet share.

Fig. C
Fig. C

Rather, he continues to exult in his power, deliberately allowing Madame de Tourvel to find him with the courtesan Emilie (Laura Benson). He then amuses himself by convincing his lover of his and his visitor’s virtue and even manages to provoke an apology. Intensifying the pleasure of this exercise of dominion is the fact that Valmont had earlier penned a letter to Tourvel while frolicking with this same woman, using her naked backside as “a most talented desk” [Fig. C].

But Valmont would have done well to keep in mind the vulnerability that power itself can bring. In Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he remarks, “to command is to commit one’s self” (Laclos 1940: 73). His exercise of power recoils on him. Once again in Madame de Tourvel’s embrace, he murmurs, “I didn’t think it was possible to love you more, but your jealousy…” To Merteuil, who in her distress pretends boredom, he admits, “I love her, I hate her; my life is a misery.” His hatred, one supposes, derives from the blow dealt to his vanity and sense of self-control by his genuine love which, as indicated above, he has yet to comprehend.

Since Valmont is not yet fully aware of the depth of his love, his vanity remains ascendant, and Merteuil uses it to prevail in her struggle for dominance over him. Madame de Tourvel falls as a collateral casualty. Merteuil implies that Valmont has or will become an object of derision because of his attachment to the straitlaced Tourvel, and she provides him a script with which to extricate himself from his involvement: To all Madame de Tourvel’s questions, pleas, and outrage, he should simply repeat his own earlier sentence (one that was profoundly threatening to Merteuil), “It’s beyond my control.” Catastrophically, he does her bidding.

Uncharacteristically disheveled, he returns again to report his success in breaking with his lover, only to have Merteuil correct him, “My victory wasn’t over her […] It was over you. You loved that woman, Vicomte. What’s more you still do, quite desperately. [A confirming close-up of Valmont shows his mouth trembling and tears squeezing from his eyes.] If you hadn’t been ashamed of it, how could you have treated her so viciously? You couldn’t bear even the vague possibility of being laughed at.”

In this terrible defeat, Valmont still has shot left for his gun, and he hits precisely the target Merteuil hit so lethally in him, her vanity. Controlling his distress, he archly informs her that the Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves), whom she expects, “isn’t coming tonight. […] I’ve arranged for him to spend the night with Cécile. Come to think of it, he mentioned he was expected here. But when I put it to him that he would really have to make a choice, I must say he didn’t hesitate.” Merteuil’s vulnerability is the same as Valmont’s; her vanity is wounded to some degree by the inattention of Danceny, but more grievously by Valmont’s love of Tourvel. Stung, she chooses to declare war; but her declaration follows rather than precedes the beginning of hostilities, as this scene and an earlier one, also involving Danceny, make clear.

Merteuil’s passion for Valmont, like his for Madame de Tourvel, inspires simultaneous love and hate. When she declares “our arrangement [the wager] null and void,” she does so because “I can see quite plainly that you’re in love with this woman.” Glenn Close’s delivery of her next lines, Frears’s direction of her, and the editing of the scene imply, also “quite plainly,” her sorrow and jealousy: “We loved each other once – I think it was love – and you made me very happy.” Earlier, she confessed to Valmont that her feeling for him had been “the only time I’ve ever been controlled by my desire.”

For a woman who “has always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own,” and who must “Win or die,” self-abnegating love cannot be unequivocally welcome. Moreover, Valmont’s love for her has been exceeded by his love for Madame de Tourvel. After telling her that he wants “to come home [to Merteuil],” Valmont qualifies his declaration, “As for this present infatuation, it won’t last; but for the moment, it’s beyond my control” – a phrase that Merteuil receives like a kidney punch and that she will turn devastatingly against him and Madame de Tourvel, as we have seen.

From this point until she learns of Valmont’s death, Merteuil’s vanity and her love of cruelty are in control. When she later strings Valmont along by blandly telling him, “I still love you, you see, in spite of all your faults and your complaints,” her avowal is more tactical than heartfelt; it is in the service of her double attack on him and Tourvel.

Against Merteuil’s real love for Valmont and his for her, vanity triumphs, in a rout. Merteuil informs Danceny of Valmont’s seduction of his beloved Cécile, a revelation that leads to Valmont’s death. Then, even as Valmont suffers a mortal wound (by Danceny’s sword, but more fundamentally by Merteuil’s having convinced him to quit Madame de Tourvel), he turns over his letters from Merteuil with the advice to the Chevalier that “when you have read them, you may decide to circulate them.” So he does, ruining her as decisively as she destroyed Valmont. It is an irony typical of Dangerous Liaisons that Danceny, Valmont’s instrument, is the same that Merteuil turned against him. “In this affair,” the dying Valmont tells Danceny, “we are both her creatures.” Merteuil, indeed, functions in some respects as what Jung called a “terrible mother” to her young lover (as well as to Cécile). But it is equally true that in this affair, Danceny is the creature of the other main combatant, Valmont.

Fig. D
Fig. D

Much of the action in Merteuil’s home takes place in front of a many-paned wall of mirrors. Behind this multitude of reflections, and through a door concealed among them, Merteuil meets her lovers [Fig. D]. By the middle of the film, they include Danceny and one other, though Valmont is obviously familiar of old with the hidden room. Penetrating the wall at an early stage of his as-yet-undeclared war with Merteuil, he finds her in bed with Danceny, whom he skillfully leads to humiliate her by telling him of Cécile’s illness and her desire to see “her beloved Chevalier.” “How can I have been away at such a time! How can I ever forgive myself?” As he says this, Danceny glances only briefly at Merteuil, who listens unenthusiastically to his mortifying words, the more mortifying for their innocence of any malign intention. As Valmont executes his verbal machinations, he and Danceny stand before a mirror, in which the image of Merteuil, now alone in her bed, goes progressively out of focus – a bit of cinematographic virtuosity that reflects her diminishing importance in Danceny’s consciousness.

In this scene as elsewhere, the action is enforced or commented upon by Frears’s use of mirrors. In general, mirrors are associated with self-satisfaction, with deception, and also with self-deception. The artfully manufactured image that looks back from their mirrors at the characters of Dangerous Liaisons constitutes at once what they show the world and what they see of themselves.[2] Madame de Tourvel, on the other hand, is rarely shown in or before a mirror. “A ‘natural’ woman,’ she is generally filmed in the park or in rooms that open onto gardens” (Bardet and Caron 2008: 158).

Both of the culminating incidents of Valmont’s affair with Madame de Tourvel begin with him gathering himself before his mirror image. In a mirror-shot of Valmont’s face and the back of his head, the Vicomte composes himself for his final, successful assault on Madame de Tourvel’s virtue. Climaxing his performance by forswearing any hope “that I may end my days in some peace of mind,” he stands facing her before a large mirror, which reflects, in anticipation of his success, both his figure and hers.

When he breaks with her, the episode begins with Valmont entering Madame de Tourvel’s room in a mirror shot. As he announces that he has become terribly bored – “After all, it’s been four months” – he gathers himself again, facing not his lover but his own image in her mirror. He has barely strength enough to complete his act, as we understand when he staggers into the hall outside her room. Nonetheless, Valmont’s vanity, with Merteuil’s assistance, keeps him on his destructive course.

“Vanity and happiness,” Merteuil tells a miserable Valmont after he has recounted his breakup with Tourvel, “are incompatible.” Though she seems to think herself exempt, she too proves what Valmont calls “the truth of these philosophical speculations.” When she learns of Valmont’s death, she smashes her store of cosmetics and the large mirror in her dressing room. If we can take her frenzy as in part a repudiation of her self-absorption, it comes too late. Additionally, it appears to be temporary; she arrives at the opera, in the penultimate scene of the film, fully turned-out once again.

Fig. E
Fig. E

The opening shot of Merteuil as she prepares to face – literally – her day is balanced by her tearful removal of makeup in front of her mirror at the film’s end. Crucially, however, that image of her is direct, not reflected; and even the back of the mirror disappears when the camera dollies gradually in. As she removes powder and a cosmetic beauty mark, tears begin to trickle from her eyes and the image slowly fades to black, echoing in a melancholy key the quick fade-in to her face that opens the film. We see Merteuil unprepared and unguarded, departing the scene of her vanity as finally as her beloved and therefore hated Valmont did, but without the death that set him free [Fig. E].

It is an indication of how badly true love fares in Dangerous Liaisons that its main and almost only marker is jealousy. (This will also be the case in Frears’s later Chéri (2009), another historical costume film of love initially disregarded and then unrecognized when it arises.) In every case but Madame de Tourvel’s, moreover, the jealous lover is also amorously busy elsewhere. Merteuil is sporting with an unnamed companion along with young Danceny. Danceny, in turn, is bitterly jealous of Valmont, woundingly described to him by Merteuil as Cécile’s “more regular lover.” Valmont, who loves both Merteuil and Madame de Tourvel, is amusing himself at the same time with Emilie and, as revenge against her mother, Cécile. Nonetheless, he reveals himself to be violently jealous of Danceny, demanding, in what Merteuil calls “a marital tone,” that she break with “that colorless” – an epithet cut off by his losing self-control and slapping her. His jealousy is the more understandable because he earlier urged her to take in addition to her current one “another lover […] me, for instance.”

Like mirrors, the settings (visual and aural) of Dangerous Liaisons, and its cinematography, underscore the perfusive vanity of its protagonists. As I noted earlier, the music that begins the opening credits conspicuously imitates that which Bernard Herrmann created for Alfred Hitchcock’s American films, especially Pyscho and Vertigo. This acoustic foreshadowing of deception and loss and sorrow continues only briefly. After a few seconds of silence, it is succeeded by what sounds like an Eighteenth Century operatic overture (actually from a Vivaldi concerto); the music will frequently return to that register, suitable to the period of the action. The music performed within the story is naturally also of the period, though not necessarily familiar: arias from Glück and an obscure one (at the time of the film’s release) from Handel. On the soundtrack, but without obvious sources, we hear instrumental excerpts from Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel.[3] On one occasion, as Bardet and Caron point out, period music is used with particular significance: The melody of the aria that the castrato is singing in the music room sequence is heard again on the soundtrack – with intense irony – “at the moment when the Marquise dictates to the Vicomte the text for his rupture with his lover [Madame de Tourvel]” (Bardet and Caron 2008: 170).

Fig. W
Fig. W

At the opera, a repeated setting for Dangerous Liaisons, Danceny is introduced to Cécile and recommended by Merteuil as “the best music teacher in Paris,” an apparently idle bit of matchmaking that will become more consequential than she might have imagined. There too, in a later scene, she gives Cécile permission to answer Danceny’s love letters. And there, finally, she suffers her banishment from society because of Danceny’s circulation of the correspondence between her and Valmont.

“Monsieur Danceny,” she tells Cécile when she introduces them, “is one of those rare eccentrics who come here to listen to the music.” For Merteuil and for most other members of aristocratic society in Dangerous Liaisons, the arias that are performed for them serve less as a source of aesthetic pleasure than as their own background music, accompaniment for the dramas of the social lives they so artfully create.

Fig. X
Fig. X

An especially vivid example of a musical setting for their intrigues comes when Merteuil, Valmont, Madame de Tourvel, and others attend a soirée that includes a performance of Handel’s “Ombra Mai Fu.” Madame de Tourvel enters the scene via a forty-second tracking shot in which our view of her is obscured by a black wall for ten seconds (a stylistic touch of which Frears is fond). We then see the countertenor beginning his aria before the camera picks up Madame de Tourvel again [Fig. W, Fig. X]. Without interrupting the flow of the scene, this shot achieves, in effect, two cuts; it also heightens the impression that the aria serves primarily as dramatic complement to the uninterrupted action.

It is worth following the rest of the sequence in detail, a sequence without dialog that is as visually rhythmic as the music and as packed with significance as several pages of novelistic description:

Fig. H
Fig. H

In two-shot, an attentive Cécile listens in center frame, Merteuil out of focus behind her, screen right. The focus shifts to Merteuil and the camera pans slightly, bringing into the frame Valmont; they smile at each other, mutually gratified by his recent seduction of the young woman [Fig. H]. Cut to a close-up of Madame de Rosemont, in whose country home the seduction occurred; then pan to an agitated Madame de Volanges, Cécile’s mother, under whose ineffectual watch her daughter’s violation took place. Cut to a medium close-up of the singer continuing. Cut to Madame de Tourvel moving toward the back of the room, tracked by the camera. She stops for a moment, visually framed by Merteuil and

Fig. I
Fig. I

Valmont, at whom she slightly smiles [Fig I]. Valmont looks sullen. She continues out of the frame as the camera stays on Merteuil and Valmont, who, continuing to look resentful, watches her go. Cut to a close-up of Tourvel’s shadowed profile. Cut to an extreme close-up of Valmont looking at her, still unhappy. Cut to a similar close-up of Merteuil, her smile fading, then replaced by a look of dawning understanding and concern. Cut to a three-shot: Tourvel in shadowed profile, Merteuil and Valmont out of focus behind her [Fig. J]. The camera doesn’t move, but the focus shifts to Valmont and Merteuil as Tourvel turns her head toward them. Merteuil averts her gaze, while Valmont, continuing to look aggrieved, returns Tourvel’s glance. In close-up Madame de

Fig. J
Fig. J

Tourvel proffers another friendly smile, which fades as she turns back to the music. Close-up of Valmont, bowing his head. Three-shot: Madame de Tourvel out of focus in right foreground; in focus, Valmont takes Merteuil’s hand and raises it to his lips; Merteuil smiles affectionately, and turns back to the music as Valmont briefly strokes the back of her neck [Fig. K]. [Valmont’s performance is apparently designed to inspire some jealousy in Madame de Tourvel, but her gaze remains directed toward the singer. At the same time, we infer some sincere affection between Valmont and Merteuil.] Extreme close-up of Madame de Tourvel’s face as she turns her head to look at Valmont. Cut to extreme close-up of Valmont, now grave and perhaps slightly questioning, who returns her look. Dissolve out to next scene as the singer concludes his aria. The camera is now looking down, significantly (see below), from one staircase to a lower one on Valmont leading Cécile to her next carnal lesson [Fig. L].

Fig. K
Fig. K

With its subtle acting and elegant editing, blocking, and camera work, the images of this sequence supersede the music which, after the opening shot of the tenor, becomes background. The main plot of the film, the evolution of the complicated triangle among Madame de Tourvel, Valmont, and Merteuil, advances without a word or anything that we would usually call action. Merteuil, whose conspiratorial camaraderie with Valmont prefaced the sequence, begins to suspect the intensity of Valmont’s attraction to Tourvel, a suspicion that disturbs her and that leads us toward understanding the depth of her attachment to her companion. Valmont’s campaign to possess Madame de Tourvel moves into a new phase: he assumes the persona of a disheartened, morose suitor. Tourvel, attempting to show Valmont the uncompromised “friendship” that she promised him, begins to respond, however slightly, to his portrayal of an unrequited lover’s pain. Ironically (as usual), the dissolve takes us away from this understated drama to one of Valmont’s concurrent sexual adventures, his continuing bedroom education of Cécile – whose image, we may recall, was the first we encountered after the tracking shot that brought Madame de Tourvel into the music room.

Fig. L
Fig. L

Like many operas in general and the operatic settings and arias of Frears’s film in particular, Dangerous Liaisons is plentifully stocked with intense emotional climaxes. Because of the importance of the face in expressing human emotion, close-ups and extreme close-ups of actors’ faces raise the affective temperature of almost any sequence. Dangerous Liaisons uses such shots frequently and aggressively. Ten of the fourteen shots in the sequence just described begin with or include close-ups; counting the images added by tracking shots and focus shifts, there are at least twenty or so facial close-ups and extreme close-ups, mostly of Merteuil, Valmont, and Madame de Tourvel.

Fig. M
Fig. M

A moments of extreme emotion or turning points in the plot (which usually coincide), Frears usually moves his camera in tight. Several close-up two shots of Valmont and Cécile emphasize the physical intimacy he has achieved with her: An extremely brief tight close-up of Danceny’s face, teeth bared, precedes the fatal moment when Valmont rushes unarmed onto the young man’s sword [Fig. M]. An emotionally intense close-up two-shot shows Madame de Tourvel and Valmont embracing after he has raised and then dispelled her jealousy. During his duel with Danceny, we are in Valmont’s mind for similar shots of his memorial flashbacks to his time with Madame de Tourvel. (Similarly filmed memories also comprise poignant markers of the love between the protagonists in Chéri.)

Tight facial close-ups portray the final moments of each member of the central trio, which they experience apart: Valmont’s words to Danceny as he lies dying, Madame de Tourvel’s “Draw the curtain” just before she dies, and Merteuil’s tearful removing of her makeup.[4] The death of Tourvel and the last shot of Merteuil repeat a metaphor of theatrical presentation that has played through the film, from its opening shots of the protagonists making up for the day’s performance to its conclusion.

Throughout, heavy use of extreme close-ups cinematically underlines Dangerous Liaisons’ melodramatic quality. At the same time, such shots often remain ambiguous in emotional content. Does Merteuil weep for herself or for Valmont? Or for both? When Tourvel murmurs to Danceny, “Enough. Draw the curtain,” does her “Enough” signify that she has understood the message of love he brought from Valmont, or that she is wearied of life, or that she can bear to hear no more, or that Danceny’s words have consoled her, or that she wishes no further reminders of her fall from virtue – or perhaps all that?

Fig. Y
Fig. Y

As at the end of their stories, the frequent portrayal of the central characters in tight close-ups throughout the film emphasizes their solitude, the degree to which they experience their most troubling moments emotionally alone, without fellowship or support. From its isolating opening sequence, Dangerous Liaisons unfolds like the latter stages of traditional tragic narratives as Frye characterized them: Increasingly isolated characters lose touch with whatever societal connections they may retain and slip away toward solitary death or ostracism. For Merteuil and Valmont, separation from other people – including casual lovers and even each other – results from their relentless pursuit of power. Two-shot close-ups signify pretty much the opposite, intimacy; but they are relatively infrequent and are sometimes as ironic as straightforward – for example, in the case of shots of Cécile and Valmont in bed.

Fig. N
Fig. N

In Mary Reilly, a film Frears directed eight years after Dangerous Liaisons, a visual motif of bars and grids underscores the sexual repression and social restraints that confine the central characters. In the earlier film, similar imagery is used more ironically: protective obstructions fail to protect, restraining ones don’t restrain; rather, they are repeatedly breached. As Merteuil proposes the seduction of Cécile – whom her husband-to-be, Merteuil’s former lover, supposes to have “guaranteed virtue” – Frears inserts a quick flashback to her mother visiting her in a convent; we see Cecile guarded by two nuns behind a locked grid, then talking with her mother behind a formidable lattice of iron [Fig. Y, Fig. N]. But Cécile is already out in the dangerous world as Merteuil describes her scheme and Valmont has already encountered her. When the assault on Cécile’s virginity begins, Valmont spies upon her mother from behind a multi-paned room divider, a barrier that protects only the spy.

Merteuil’s mirrored wall and concealed door presumably renders secure the room in which she conducts her assignations. It has the opposite aim of the grids behind which Cécile was guarded. In front of that wall, Merteuil refuses Valmont; and it is also in front of it that she begins to dictate the script that he will use to break with Madame de Tourvel. But her gridded wall is ultimately ineffective. Penetrating it even in darkness, Valmont confronts her and Danceny; and there, as we have seen, begins the battle that will finally destroy both of them.

Fig. O
Fig. O

Valmont pursues Madame de Tourvel through equally ineffectual barriers. He opens the gates of Madame de Rosemont’s estate when he returns to Tourvel after laying the bait of his charitable “impulse.” He follows his quarry into the sanctuary of the church through equally unresisting gates. This motif of breached gates and insecure grids climaxes with a remarkable shot: After Valmont delivers his final ultimatum to Madame de Tourvel, “I must have you or die,” she rises and rushes from the chair where he has put his head in her lap. A predator sizing up his prey, he watches her flight through the dark wickerwork back of the chair, then pounces to deliver the verbal blows that at last bring her down [Fig. O].

William Rothman has noted the importance of a similar visual motif, which he labels “////,” that “recurs at significant junctures in every one of [Hitchcock’s] films.” It seems likely that this motif found its way into Frears’s filmmaking from Hitchcock, whose influence on Frears is profound. In both Dangerous Liaisons and Mary Reilly, Hitchcock’s association of “////” with what Rothman describes as “sexual fear and the specific threat of loss of control or breakdown” seems especially apposite (1982: 33).

Further evidence of Hitchcock’s influence on the mis-en-scene of Dangerous Liaisons may be found in its staging of significant moments on stairways. Christopher Hampton, who was on set during the shooting of the movie, recalls, “He was going home to his hotel and looking at Notorious [1945] every night. As a result, there’s a lot of stuff on staircases” (Lindsey 1988: 52). In his more ironic films, Hitchcock tended to show characters descending stairs or, when they ascended them, finding reversals of their hopes at the top. Arbogast’s ascent in Psycho to his encounter with Norman/Mother and his immediate descent of the same stairs after he is stabbed constitute an especially vivid example of Hitchcock’s ironic use of stairs.[5]

Fig. P
Fig. P

Similarly, Frears, in the ironic Dangerous Liaisons, uses stairs mostly either in actions of descents or in ascents with equivocal or ironically disastrous outcomes. An especially vivid example of the latter occurs when an apparently triumphant Valmont bounds up Merteuil’s stairs to claim, he supposes, his reward [Fig. P]. He gets, as we have seen, no reward but a startling rebuff and the unexpected assertion from Merteuil that he has fallen in love with his victim. Merteuil’s most vicious triumph, her instructions to Valmont of why and how he should break with Tourvel, takes place in a minute-long tracking shot as she leads her former lover down a twisting staircase [Fig. V].

Fig. V
Fig. V

Other visual motifs, like those of grids and bars, staircases, and mirrors subtly add their ironies to this deeply ironic film. Among relatively inconspicuous visual motifs in Dangerous Liaisons are hearth fires, one instance of which appears in the scene of Madame de Tourvel’s capitulation to Valmont. In their contexts, such fires suggest infernal flames more than cozy autumn comfort: before one, Merteuil listens with growing distress to Valmont’s ecstatic recitation of his lovemaking with Tourvel; before another, she declares her triumph over Valmont and assures him that he can never win back the lover from whom he has broken, “because when one woman strikes at the heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal.” Related to this motif of flames may be the emphasis given to the lighting of a multitude of candles on the enormous chandelier that is prominent during the first after-credit scene in Merteuil’s parlor.

Fig. Q
Fig. Q

Another subtle strand of imagery, yonic spaces, appears first in the long archway at the convent. We see it again in the small arch in a hedge fronted by almost comically phallic shrubs before which Valmont strolls with Madame de Tourvel; about these outings, Valmont writes to Merteuil that they walk, “a little further down the path that has no turning” [Fig. Q]. Several times the camera approaches Merteuil’s Parisian mansion through a large stone arch. Most notable is the shot looking down at the arched tunnel in which the duel between Valmont and Danceny is beginning. The phallic swords of the combatants clash in a space graphically suggestive of a vagina both have known, and that one, Danceny, regards as his exclusive domain [Fig. R].

Fig. R
Fig. R

Most pervasively among its visual motifs, Dangerous Liaisons carefully orchestrates its colors, especially red, white, and black. It uses its palette both expressively and what we might call abstractly, to reinforce the rhythms of its plot. Put another way, the colors of Dangerous Liaisons function semantically and as part of its visual grammar, supporting both the content and the structure of its meanings. A few notable examples will illustrate the practice of Frears and his collaborators in the chromatic design of the film.

Fig. Z
Fig. Z

When we first encounter Cécile, she is dressed in white, conventionally associated here with innocence. In the same scene, outside the convent, the secular world arrives with black horses and red drapery, colors that will often be connected, again conventionally, with death and with passion and/or danger, respectively. During the soprano’s intensely emotional aria at the opera, the stage is saturated with red, while in Merteuil’s box, Danceny meets for the first time Cécile, both of them dressed in calm black and white.[6] In a later scene at the opera, Cupid and his accompanying harpist are on stage in pure white, which perhaps suggests something the film is ultimately clear about: the innocence of love, especially compared to the carnal egotism and passionate vengefulness of the central pair [Fig. Z].

In an ironic variant on color associations, Valmont wears white garments when he wishes to be seen, deceptively, as idling sociably; his real purpose is to slip a letter to Cécile. Similarly, his white clothing early in his courtship of Madame de Tourvel may subtly and misleadingly suggest the purity of his intentions. When Merteuil appears in innocent white in the closing scene at the opera, she fools no one, having been exposed by the packet of letters, reddened with blood, that the dying Valmont turned over to Danceny.

Fig. S
Fig. S

The red connected to Madame de Tourvel is not directly associated with passion but with her blood during the harrowing treatment she receives at the convent; her medical tortures, however, do address an illness that has its origins in love. If we recall the crimson rose she picks when first she appears, in white, at Madame de Rosemont’s country estate, we will be aware of the resonance, at least partly ironic, between the red of the early scene and of the late ones. In accordance with the predominant associations of red in the film, that rose may also delicately suggest that she is not entirely immune from the romantic love with which roses are traditionally linked [Fig. S].

When Danceny draws the curtain and comes between Madame de Tourvel and the camera, black fills the screen, much as it did when the camera followed her into the music room earlier. But in the later shot, we next see her eyes being closed in death.

Fig. T
Fig. T

Like culminating variations on a theme, the red, white, and black that flash through Dangerous Liaisons attain their crescendo with the high longshot that ends the dueling sequence. Supported by his manservant and Danceny, Valmont dies and Frears cuts to look down on the scene from directly overhead. The scarlet of Valmont’s blood streaks the white of the snow; it leads to the somber black in which his valet, Danceny, and he are dressed – concluding his story with a tonic chord of the colors that have accompanied it [Fig. T].[7] The last shot of the film, the extreme close-up on Merteuil’s face, echoes in a quieter, slightly dissonant coda the colors of Valmont’s death: pale skin, red lips, and a gradual fade to black as the outcome of the vanities of intrigue, of wealth and station, and of passion disappear into oblivion.

Frye writes, “Tragedy usually makes love and the social structure irreconcilable and contending forces, a conflict which reduces love to passion and social activity to a forbidding and imperative duty” (1957: 218). One could hardly ask for a more precise description of Dangerous Liaisons (or of the novel from which it was adapted). From the elaborate labors involved in turning out Valmont and Merteuil, efforts that have obvious parallels to the armoring and equipping of knights for ritual combat, through the endless and often intricately plotted social maneuvers that advance the plot, to the ostracizing of Merteuil in the last sequence, social life appears as a battle for position – in this regard much like chess, a game whose pieces reflect its chivalric analog. The social struggle in Dangerous Liaisons is strenuous, dangerous, and obligatory. Paradoxically, it also isolates the combatants.

To continue with Frye, “The central female figure of a tragic action will often polarize the tragic conflict” (1957: 219). Merteuil, both the central female and the most powerful figure of Dangerous Liaisons, pushes the action forward more than any of its other characters. It is she who first proposes the seduction of Cécile, puts Danceny in a difficult position between her and Cécile, his more appropriate lover, and then informs him of Valmont’s intrigue with her. Perhaps of equal importance, she adds to Valmont’s apparently whimsical scheme to seduce Madame de Tourvel a reward, her bed, that intensifies her former lover’s desire to succeed in his project. Like many tragic heroes, her fault is not weakness – one might argue that Valmont’s is – but overreaching, excessive confidence in the power of her cruelty and her determination to “win or die,” the latter term of which she does not seem to regard as a serious possibility. It is no insignificant detail that Frears begins and ends his film with close-ups of her face.

Concluding, we might turn to the later historical drama Frears directed, Chéri, for a summary of the action of the earlier one.[8] What Lea (Michelle Pfeiffer, again) says about the love that she and Chéri (Rupert Friend) have been able neither to successfully achieve nor to forgo applies equally to the love that Valmont and Merteuil are unable or unwilling to renew: “We both lost the only really honorable thing in our lives.”

Lesley Brill teaches film at Wayne State University in Detroit and has published books on Hitchcock, John Huston, and Crowds, Power, and Transformation in Cinema, as well as numerous essays on film and photography.

References

Bardet, Guillaume and Caron, Dominique (2008), Les Liaisons dangereuses: Laclos/Frears, Paris: ellipses. All translations from this volume are mine.

Canetti, Elias (1973), Crowds and Power, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Frye, Northrop, Anatomy of Criticism (1957), Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kassabian, Anahid (2001), Hearing Film: Tracking Identifications in Contemporary Hollywood Film Music, New York: Routledge, 2001.

Kemlo, Justine (2009), “Beyond our Control? A Systemic-Functional perspective on adaptation and Dangerous Liaisons, TRANS-, no. 8, July 8. Accessed 1 October 2013.

de Laclos, Pierre Choderlos (1940), Les Liaisons Dangereuses, London: The Nonesuch Press.

Lindsey, Robert (1988), “The Dangerous Leap of Stephen Frears,” New York Times Magazine, December 18.

Rothman, William (1982), Hitchcock: The Murderous Gaze (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

de Rougemont, Denis (1940), Love in the Western World, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

 


[1] John Malkovich recently directed – July 9-14, 2013 – a production of Christopher Hampton’s play, the source of the screenplay, also by Hampton, for Frears’ film. Malkovich’s production, curiously, was in French with English supertitles. Reported in The New Yorker, July 8 & 15, 2013, p. 12.

[2] Bardet and Caron note the importance of what they call “signifying mirrors and deceitful doors,” which “illustrate the exercise of deception of the libertines [Valmont and Merteuil]” (Bardet and Caron 2008: 156). Similarly, Justine Kemlo writes, “The pervasiveness of mirrors and reflections in the film helps us construe the role of appearances and deception as pivotal” (Kemlo 2009: paragraph 51). That these mirrors and doors also suggest the self-deceit of the protagonists seems to me to be important, as well.

[3] It is perhaps an indication of how powerfully the recreation of Eighteenth Century visual settings influences one’s perception of the music on the soundtrack that Anahid Kassabian asserts, ““Most of its score consists of Baroque period music” (Kassabian 2001: 70) In fact, most of its score consists of music composed for the film by George Fenton.

[4] According to Bardet and Caron, Glenn Close proposed this final scene to her director (2008: 185).

[5] As Bardet and Caron note, however, the emphatic use of stairs also has a long history in cinema, independent of Hitchcock, from Eisenstein’s famous stair sequences in The Battleship Potemkin and in expressionist cinema, through Welles and Hitchcock up to the present day (2008: 156).

[6] Discussing costuming and wigs in Dangerous Liaisons, Bardet and Charon argue that they subtly correspond with the depiction of the actions and reactions of the characters, “without excessive emphasis on their significance” (Bardet and Caron 2008: 161).

[7] This brilliant moment may also have a Hitchcockian antecedent, the shot in Topaz (1969) in which the murdered Juanita (Karin Dor) slips from the arms of her lover and killer, Para (John Vernon). As she falls, Hitchcock uses a radical overhead shot to show her intense blue dressing gown flaring out around her on the marble floor.

[8] Christopher Hampton, the screenwriter for Dangerous Liaisons, also wrote Chéri and Mary Reilly, all three of which are among Frears’s strongest films, in my opinion – though its director apparently has little affection for the last.

 

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