Sam Mills

Les Liaisons Dangereuses: A Book That Keeps Burning


When Pierre Choderlos de Laclos sat down to pen Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1779, he declared that he wanted to write a book that ‘would make a new departure, which would create some stir in the world and continue to do so after I had gone from it.’ The ‘stir’ has lasted for centuries. It was a succès de scandale upon publication in 1782, reviewed as ‘diabolical’ whilst becoming an instant bestseller; savoured by Marie Antoinette, who commissioned an illicit copy for her library, adorned with a blank cover; banned in 1823 as ‘an outrage to public morality’; read by Virginia Woolf with ‘great delight’, who championed it in the 1920s along with Aldous Huxley and Arnold Bennett; and in recent decades, it has inspired a fresh spate of adaptations. From the superb 1985 play by Christopher Hampton to the appalling Netflix movie of this year, to a forthcoming series, due in November on STARZ, our fascination with the book endures. Its complexities mean that is not easy to adapt, however. ‘This book burns as only ice can burn,’ Baudelaire declared; it is a pity that there are more tepid adaptations than there are scorching ones.

But let us start with a good one – the best one – the one which I believe has inspired many of the others: the 1988 film, which evolved out of the success of Hampton’s theatrical adaptation. Experiencing a piece of art at a seminal age, when we are hungry for knowledge but delicate to its impact, can result in it leaving a permanent scar on our psyche. I was fourteen years of age when I first saw Dangerous Liaisons, at a birthday sleepover with a dozen female friends, watching the VHS in the dark in the early hours. The film is faithful to its source text: set in pre-revolutionary France, it explores the machinations of two aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont. They are clever, wealthy, idle, suffering from a deep-set ennui; once lovers, they now pen letters to each other, recounting amorous exploits and conquests, bantering, mocking, revelling in their cynicism. Together, they decide to avenge a former lover who has irked them by plotting the ruin of his future bride, the fifteen-year-old ‘rosebud’, Cécile de Volanges (a scheme which fails to inspire Valmont at first, fearing she is too easy to conquer– ‘I have my reputation to consider’). Another seduction, entwined with the first, is that of the Présidente de Tourvel, a virtuous, religious woman, who is happily married: a difficult target and thus a challenge that Valmont relishes. He longs to win her, not just sexually, but with total emotional and psychological abandonment – ‘I want her to believe in God, and Virtue, and the sanctity of marriage, and still not be able to stop herself’. Merteuil tells Valmont that if his seduction is successful – if he can provide ‘proof’ in writing – then she will reward him with a night of pleasure. Valmont and Merteuil are obsessed with control, regarding emotions as embarrassments and love a form of slavery. Inevitably, this nihilism makes them restless, and for all their cynical declarations, there lurks a hunger in them for authentic feeling, Valmont complaining of his ‘withered heart’. When he falls for Madame de Tourvel, love becomes a purifying, disruptive force that punctures their narcissistic bubble. They lose control of events, of people; Merteuil and Valmont evolve from lovers to enemies; eventually they destroy each other.

Dangerous Liaisons is one of those rare films where a kind of magic occurs and every player’s involvement is perfect, from Stephen Frears’ mesmerising direction to George Fenton’s elegantly menacing, baroque-inspired score. Glenn Close is superbly waspish and wicked as Merteuil, but shows vital flashes of vulnerability; John Malkovich, playing Valmont in a breakout role, embodies a galvanic charisma; Michelle Pfeiffer nails perhaps the hardest role of all: a virtuous woman who needs to be intelligent and sympathetic rather than prissy (the fact that Pfeiffer and Malkovich had an on-set affair, which ended his seven-year-marriage, adds to the frisson). They are joined by Uma Thurman as Cécile, Keanu Reeves as the boyish Danceny, and a youthful Peter Capaldi in the role of Valmont’s valet Azolan.

My fourteen-year-old self was enraptured. Up until this point, much of my reading about love had felt unsatisfying, ranging from the eccentric sweetness of E. M. Forster’s A Room With A View, to trashy high school romances where modern-day rakes seduced good girls and were reformed by love; I was hungry for a story that might give me a deeper insight into the truths of human nature, less interested in what adults wanted to tell me and ‘careful to ponder what they attempted to hide’ (to quote Merteuil). Upon watching the film, I remember being shocked by it – and how pleasurable that shock was. I don’t believe this is simply a matter of my age. When the play was staged in 1986, seasoned critics shared my response; Nicholas de Jongh, reviewing for the Guardian, declared that ‘I think it is this emotion which has generated much of the excitement attending Christopher Hampton’s theatrical re-creation of Laclos’s epistolary novel’. It shocks because, for the first half of the story, it invites us to join in sympathy with its two villains as they plot and jest, as they wink and swap surreptitious letters and keys, as they make us laugh with guilty unease at cruel one-liners or the scene where Valmont writes a letter to Tourvel using the naked back of courtesan Emilie as his desk, both of them giggling at the innuendo of ‘I have been tossed from exaltation to exhaustion and back again…’ Then there is the shock of a gradual shift in tone halfway through. Having made us snigger with its naughty humour, it catches us off-guard; its machinations darken when Valmont abuses and deflowers fifteen-year-old Cécile; its comedy becomes tragedy; its cynicism evolves into authentic emotion, tender romance (albeit one quickly destroyed again by jealousy) and pathos; Valmont becomes a tragic anti-hero, whilst the seemingly invincible Merteuil crumbles.

The film led me to read Christopher Hampton’s play, regretting that I hadn’t been able to see it in person (I would only have been eleven at the time). I was left to imagine how electric it would have been to watch Lindsay Duncan as Merteuil and Alan Rickman as Valmont, ‘his drawling voice steeped in languor’, whom one critic described as slipping ‘sly and inscrutable through the action like a cat who knows the way to the cream’. The backstory to the play is interesting: Hampton fell in love with the novel when he was handed a copy by his Oxford tutor at the age of sixteen. In 1984, given an open commission by the RSC, he opted to adapt Laclos’s novel. Initially, the RSC weren’t that impressed. His play was relegated from the Barbican to The Other Place, Stratford-Upon-Avon’s smaller theatre, with 150 seats and a tin roof. As rehearsals unfolded, however, the cast began to feel that something ‘remarkable’ was taking shape and upon opening, it was rapturously received, swiftly transferring to London and Broadway, winning Oliviers and Tonys.

Having enjoyed Hampton’s playscript, I devoured Laclos’s book. An epistolatory novel, it is more subtle and sophisticated than comparable classics of the eighteenth century, such as Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa or Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloïse. This also accounts for some of the horror that the book evoked upon publication. Often a didactic form, the epistolatory novel traditionally dealt with themes of morality. If Laclos subverted this, perhaps even deliberately parodying Rousseau, he also refined the form, keeping his letters tighter and more focused, employing a kaleidoscope of viewpoints and voices rather than imposing a moralistic authorial tone. Seduction in Les Liaisons is more cerebral than physical. Words are the main weapon; it is language that duels and fires and wounds and lances. Laclos was a military man and he employs the imagery of warfare throughout – Merteuil and Valmont launch campaigns and seek the ‘glory’ of forcing a victim to ‘surrender’. Yet words are a tricksy ammunition. Merteuil, reflecting on the limits of language, ponders on how hard it is to pin down the slippery qualities of love and sound sincere, complaining that Valmont’s love letters are too beautifully crafted, so that
‘every phrase betrays you’.

The epistolary technique also gives the novel its fabulous complexity and ambiguity. On first reading, Valmont’s early letters of seduction to Tourvel seem ladened with irony. On re-reading(s), knowing his final fate, they become more ambiguous: perhaps the feelings that he pens are in fact true, and he sends their copies to Merteuil with a cynical commentary attached in order to try to assure himself, as much as her, that he is manipulating Tourvel rather than becoming a victim of amour. Letters illustrate how characters lie to each other and themselves, whether villainous or virtuous. Letters represent the undercurrents of emotion that cannot be expressed in polite society. Tourvel and Valmont are under the same roof when she gives him a letter in response to his declarations of passion; one senses she can express her angry rebuff with more finesse than she could in person against such an articulate libertine. And letters are dangerous, with the potential to fell reputations in one swoop, in the same way that a miscalculated tweet or untimely sexting might destroy us today. In Laclos’s era, this was particularly a problem for women. Tourvel demands that Valmont sends her letters back, whilst Merteuil declares that she is invincible in her love affairs by ‘never writing letters and never providing evidence of my defeat’. Her one weakness in this respect is Valmont. When her confidante turns enemy, he enacts a revenge that has an afterlife beyond his death, allowing her letters to be distributed and wrecking her reputation. It is another facet of the book that Hampton incorporates with success in the film, using them to push the story forward on ‘more than twenty occasions’, making it the ‘first epistolatory film’.

Laclos has been appreciated as a feminist writer by some modern critics. Of his cast of characters, Merteuil is most powerful, shrewd, and calculating. Hampton, anointing her as his favourite character in French literature, has remarked how controversial a creation she was – there had never been a female character before in a novel like her. In one famous letter, she reveals how she learnt how to survive and thrive in a male dominated world. She jeers at Valmont for his ‘successes’, pointing out that the battle between the sexes is ‘an unequal contest’. For a man, ‘defeat means only one victory the less’, whereas a woman’s reputation is so fragile that the game of love, ‘yesterday’s idol’ can so easily become ‘the victim of tomorrow’s sacrifice’. Hence, she is proud of her ability to turn ‘the formidable male into the plaything of my whims and fancies’. Cécile de Volanges is quite the reverse of Merteuil: naïve and innocent. But Laclos also portrays her with sympathy. She is kept in a nunnery until the age of fifteen and then released for an arranged marriage; her lack of education makes her vulnerable, allowing Merteuil to step in and play malicious mentor and puppeteer. Laclos went on to write the treatise On the Education of Women (1783), arguing passionately that women deserved a good education as much as men and were enslaved by a male-dominated society.

The ending of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is dramatic but elusive. It involves the death of two main characters: Tourvel waning away from a broken heart, and Valmont slaughtered in a duel with Danceny. But even his death is a riddle – there are hints that it is a suicide rather than a defeat, given that he is an accomplished swordsman fighting a weak opponent. If there is a romance to Valmont’s death, a poignancy that love has been both his destruction and his redemption, then the Marquise’s is bathetic by contrast. The punishment that befalls her seems so hasty and exaggerated – bankruptcy, smallpox, disfigurement, the loss of an eye – as to be blackly comic and perfunctory, as though Laclos is sighing with the obligation to assert a moral lesson that evil does not win out.

Upon finishing the novel, I found that once its shock faded, there lingered a sense of mystery. Does it condemn immoral behaviour by suggesting it leads to self-destruction, or does it revel in such immorality with too much glee for this to be plausible? If the evil characters steal the show with their panache, then it is balanced by good protagonists who, though sometimes naïve, also display wisdom and intelligence, personified in the elderly, sagacious Madame de Rosemonde. The Publisher’s Note playfully declares that the characters portrayed are so vicious ‘it is impossible to suppose they can have lived in our age’; the Editor’s Preface contradicts this by asserting that this is a collection of real letters which will lend ‘a service to public morals’. (Both were written by Laclos.) Though it burns like ice, it is written with a non-judgmental detachment. All of the characters seek happiness, debate its merits and how it might be achieved, but it remains fugacious, from Merteuil musing that vanity and happiness are incompatible to Rosemonde warning of the ‘chimerical fancies’ of love. Critic Peter Gay observes that ‘In Rousseau everybody wins through losing: the sacrifice of gratification leads to purer, more exalted happiness. In Laclos, everybody loses through winning: insistence on gratification leads to restlessness, a sense of being cheated, and tragedy.’ And whilst it is centred on a small group of characters, it may also be seen as a wider commentary on the ancien régime (one reason for its ban in 1823). It is both a satire of its time and yet feels modern; Hampton noted that in the 1980s ‘everyone assumed it was about the Me Generation and Thatcherism and Reaganism. Now, it seems more like it’s about the one per cent’, illustrating that the play ‘tends to reflect whatever era it shows up in’.

Later adaptations of Les Liaisons Dangereuses have mostly been failures. There is Valmont, (1989), which came out a year after Dangerous Liaisons, a rival film directed by Miloš Forman. In some ways this misstep is a surprise, given Forman’s track record as the director of Amadeus and One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest; problems include a weak script and the character of Valmont, played by Colin Firth, who is less lethal rake, more boyish fop. Cruel Intentions (1999) sets the story in a modern-day New York City high school. Sarah Michelle Geller plays Merteuil; Ryan Phillipe Valmont; as step-siblings, they share an incestuous relationship. The problem of setting the story in the present-day, however, is that the stakes are harder to achieve. The original Cécile is naïve because she has been rendered so by a misogynistic society, one that will also judge her if she is seen to be a fallen woman; in Cruel Intentions, without this context, she merely becomes a clownish caricature. Nevertheless, despite the film’s crudity and flaws, it retains something of the book’s sting, even if it fails to explore its complexities, and has become a cult classic.

The recent Netflix adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons, is the worst to date. Set in a French high school, it feels more like a remake of Cruel Intentions than the original text, a watered-down comedy that falters and irks, with Valmont played by an actor who might do better in a boyband, and Cécile (renamed Charlotte) scripted as an even greater idiote. Only Ella Pellegrini displays some flair as Merteuil, though her motivations – she wants to take revenge on the virginal Charlotte/Cécile because she lost a bet to win a Range Rover! – are weak. Its easy, happy-dappy ending resorts to simplistic, optimistic moralising – ‘we do crazy things for love’, so utterly the opposite of Laclos’s masterpiece that it seems a travesty it borrows his title; Lacklustre Liaisons would have been more appropriate. By setting it in a high school setting, I wonder if producers want to dilute its danger, reducing controversial games to adolescent immaturity. But Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a text that needs to be taken seriously; if you remove its sting, the delicate balance between brutality and tenderness is lost and its power to shock dissipated. The only exception to this catalogue of incompetence (to quote Merteuil) is the Korean Untold Scandal, set in eighteenth-century Korea, in the final days of the Chosun dynasty, beautifully acted and visually sumptuous. I am also intrigued by the ballet adaptations of recent years, from Liam Scarlett’s much-praised, sexily decadent version, performed in Brisbane, to the 2019 Northern Ballet version, adapted by David Nixon. Still, nothing has superseded Hampton’s adaptations of the 1980s, which I return to again and again, having watched the film over thirty times, and reread the book many more: a lifelong love affair that keeps on burning.

Sam Mills is the author of The Quiddity of Will Self, and the memoir The Fragments of my Father (Fourth Estate, 2020). She is the co-founder of indie press Dodo Ink.

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