The enduring seduction of “Dangerous Liaisons” on stage, in film and now in the TV salon | Episode Movies

The daring of Les Liaisons Dangereuses author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos transcended the scandalous content of his 1782 novel. If the themes of revenge, power, lust, duplicity and cruelty went too far, his aspirations for his novel’s legacy reached even further.

Laclos’ epistolary novel weaves a web of decadent self-involvement and class struggle through the exchange of letters between the Marquise de Merteuil, a wealthy widow, and her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont.

“I decided to write a book that was way outside of the usual trend,” he is quoted as saying, “that would make a sensation and resonate with the world after I left it.” The career officer has his mission closed of its time, but even more so in our time.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, better known as Dangerous Liaisons, has inspired literary retelling, opera, ballet, stage production, film and, as of this month, a lush eight-episode drama on Starz. Technically, this rendition is a prequel, presenting the origin stories of Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont before they were rich, or in Valmont’s case, a title with any coins behind it.

Far from innocent, the woman who started out as Camille (Alice Englert) and her lover Valmont (Nicholas Denton) and her lover Valmont (Nicholas Denton) come to their game to survive, though Camille soon finds that she must rely on her wits and quick thinking to elevate their position and avenge their sex.

Like all versions of these characters, our anti-heroine and Valmont make a sport of manipulating others and each other, competing to ruin the characters of those deemed challenging enough to ensnare.

Its setting in the years leading up to the French Revolution has led some to view it as a critique of the aristocracy, which ignores what a sensation it was among the wealthy and influential of Lacclo’s day, some of whom were his patrons. A thousand copies were sold and earned within a month of its release a fandom that included Marie Antoinettewho is said to have commissioned a copy for her private library.

Some view the story as a critique of the aristocracy ignoring what a sensation it was in Laclos’ day.

But if we know “Dangerous Liaisons” mainly from the 20th century interpretation, that probably has to do with the fact that the novel was banned for decades in the mid-19th century. It was not until the early 20th century that it found advocates in such notable authors as Aldous Huxley and Virginia Woolf.

It would be several more decades before it was made into a film for the first time in 1959, and controversially, by Roger Vadimwhich transplanted the characters to contemporary France (by late 1950s standards), transformed the French aristocracy into the Parisian bourgeoisie, and cast Jeanne Moreau and Gérard Philipe in the lead roles.

Although the film was a massive box office success in France, Vadim’s version didn’t turn out to be the standard for most modern interpretations of pop culture.

That honor is credited to Christopher Hampton’s 1985 London stage hit Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which made it to Broadway in 1987 and in which Alan Rickman played the wily Valmont. Oh to have seen that!

Then again, John Malkovich famously killed the role sexy starring in Stephen Frears’ 1988 adaptation Glen Close a performance that is at least as good as that of the Marquise next to it Michelle Pfeiffer as Valmont’s prey Madame de Tourvel.

Milos Forman put his spin on the story in 1989’s Valmont, starring Colin Firth and Annette Bening, but Frears worked from Hampton’s script and skillfully directed Malkovich and Close to capture their characters’ intimate unknowability.

In almost every worthwhile adaptation of Laclos’ story, echoes of her performances can be seen alongside Frears’ highly stylized portrayal of the opulence of Parisian high society and the production’s understated humor.

in the Cruel Intentions from 1999 Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe play the elegant, dangerously bored devils out to tarnish the reputations of Selma Blair and Reese Witherspoon, this time in Manhattan instead of Paris. It’s in many ways the prelude to the original “Gossip Girl,” right down to the curious, flying lyrics and blog posts that take the place of Laclos’s barrage of letters.

This update is executed with style and aplomb that far surpasses 2022’s Dangerous Liaisons – courtesy of French Netflix, where the action takes place in Biarritz and where power is measured not by sheer wealth but by the size of the own social media followers. It’s among the weakest entries in the catalogue, especially when compared to 2003’s Untold Scandal, which seamlessly translates the story to 18th-century Korea.


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What is it about Laclos’ ruthless high society predators that makes us want to see more of them? Academics and fans have grappled with this question for ages. But from the perspective of a TV or moviegoer, Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil are fascinating diviners of human weaknesses and strategists on how best to exploit them.

What is it about Laclos’ ruthless high society predators that makes us want to see more of them?

Therefore, the attraction of the Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont is eternal. As seductive as they are contemptuous, individually and together, they are experts at revealing only what is intended for the viewer to see.

They are the fictional ancestors of Anna Delvey and every other upper-class libertine imaginable. That they are also wealthy people, well respected in Parisian society, makes them enviable. Who wouldn’t want to be her and get away with her crimes against other people’s good name and reputation?

What the Starz series is about to find out is if audiences want to know how they got so fabulously merciless, and if that will allow people to better understand them…or better appreciate the mystery behind their motivations.

“Dangerous Liaisons” premieres Sunday, November 6 at 8 p.m. on Starz.

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