By Charity Bishop
I wonder what Marie Antoinette thought, the first time she cracked open her brand new copy of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the most scandalous novel in France. She even had it bound in black without a title so no one would know she was reading it! No doubt she devoured it, discussed it with her friends in whispers, and felt satisfaction at the end, when its scheming two seducers and “life-ruiners” meet their ends.
It’s written as a series of scheming letters between friends. The villainous Madame de Merteuil desires revenge on her former lover by arranging the seduction of his bride to be, the innocent, sweet, virginal Cecile Volanges. She entreats her friend and former lover Valmont to take up the scheme, but he soon becomes interested in seeing if he can convince a woman faithful to her husband, Madame de Tourvel, to abandon her vows and fall in love with him “against her will.” The two wreak havoc on everyone around them, before fate robs them of their intended outcomes. It puts one of them in the ground and casts the other one out of society forever.
Though salacious, this story intrigues me—though more on-screen in the gorgeous adaptation starring Glenn Close (Madame de Merteuil), Michelle Pheiffer (Madame de Tourvel), Uma Thurman (Cecile) and John Malcovich (Valmont) than in the book of letters. There is another version starring Colin Firth and Annette Benning, but Glenn Close’s provocative, diabolical performance is hard to beat. She schemes, connives, wears two faces to her friends and her enemies, and proves herself in every way untrustworthy, while engaging in a dance of sexual tension with Valmont in which people’s hearts get crushed underfoot—and, she loses hers just as Valmont loses his—both figuratively (against his intentions, he falls in love with his prey) and literally (when stabbed through the heart, he dies beneath a bridge).
Valmont goes to substantial lengths to convince the skeptical but idealistic Madame de Tourvel that despite his reputation as a shameless cad and womanizer, he has a generous and sincere heart. It is only after he appears to prove himself by refusing to take her virtue (though it was there for the offering) that he convinces her, but it also fills him with disgust—anger at himself for what he felt, anger at her innocence, anger at the trap he has caught himself in, especially when he must seduce her and break her heart. Because for once, he is not genuine in his harsh words. He takes no pleasure in the pain his callous reveal brings her. He says them to win his bet. To prove to everyone that he, Valmont, is incapable of love. Above it. Except he isn’t. He storms off to Madame de Merteuil to claim his prize (her in his bed) and seeing the infatuation he has for another woman, she refuses. Valmont won their wager but lost everything, including the woman he cannot admit to himself he loves.
One might wonder why I like a story fraught with sexual deviancy, but I like how the letters and the story never once pretend these people are anything other than awful. It arouses no sympathy for them, it shows them as callous with each other’s hearts and lives, and it repays them for their “sins” by robbing them of what they covet most in life—each other. As a friend who watched it with me one afternoon said, “If they had just gone to bed together, they might have saved everyone else a lot of trouble!” But they are so wicked and scheming, they can’t even understand their own deeper feelings for each other until it’s too late!
The novel does not go into much detail in terms of the lavish world around them, but the screenplay offers a decadent and sinful world of Georgian luxuries, from Valmont’s immaculate waistcoats and cravats to the silk gowns, trays of bonbons and treats that would make Marie Antoinette salivate. The acting is sublime. Malcovich takes the role Alan Rickman made infamous on the stage and breathes sinister life into it. The script follows the book with only a few deviations, including a different but no less impacting ending. At the end of the novel, Madame de Merteuil comes down with smallpox. This robs her of her beauty and her sight around the same time an incriminating letter to Valmont exposes her evil scheme to society. She loses her place in it, her beauty, and her sexual appeal. The film ends with her wiping off her makeup after being publically shunned—symbolically wiping away the mask she has worn for so long to reveal her true face. Because of her appearance of goodness, of benevolence, of compassion, and of fine intentions, she had power—but now everyone sees her true self, the monster beneath the sweet smile. She has no more need to wear her powder. The truth has destroyed her and made her undesirable, not only to men but also to women. “The wages of sin are death,” literally and spiritually in Valmont’s case and symbolically with hers.
It’s rare a story explores people without a “good side,” but Madame de Merteuil and Valmont remind the reader and reviewer that deceit can be the most dangerous passion of all.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Charity Bishop devotes her free time to eating chocolate, debating theology with her friends, researching the Tudors and writing novels about them, caring for her beloved cats, running a MBTI typing blog, writing books, blogging, and searching for spiritual truth in all aspects of life.