Dangerous Liaisons (1988)

(On Cable TV, August 2017) I’m not always a good audience for period drama, but Dangerous Liaisons is something else. At times, and at first, it feels like top-class smut, as two obscenely wealthy members of the French aristocracy scheme the seduction of innocent women for nothing more than carnal stakes. There is quite a bit more nudity than expected (especially from Uma Thurman) and the dialogue is first-class. Behind the fine manners, elaborate costumes and lavish historical recreation lies a pitch-black comedy of cynical matters. John Malkovich are Glenn Close are superbly reptilian in their power games—Malkovich in particular is perverse in the best sense of the word. Familiar faces abound, including baby-faced Keanu Reeves and Peter Capaldi in minor roles. But what begins as comic debauchery soon turns to more serious matters, and by the time Dangerous Liaisons ends with death and dishonour, the ending has been amply set up by the journey. Knowing the origins of the story as an epistolary novel turned into a theatre play and then a film, the big-screen adaptation proved adept in incorporating the best elements of its complex DNA—letters end up being essential plot devices, the razor-sharp dialogue is as good as it gets, and the film manages to achieve a few authentic purely cinematic moments, either during the opening “dressing up for war” montage, or the ending sequence collapsing cause and effect of three separate scenes. Unusually for a historical drama, Dangerous Liaisons is fun to watch—either aghast at the character’s actions, or nodding along as those awful people get their comeuppance at the end.

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