Some 7 years before the French Revolution, a publication caused a sensation in France. Les Liaisons dangereuses, Dangerous Liaisons, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, was first published 240 years ago, in four volumes, in March 1782. Although it is a work of fiction, it could be what is now called historical fiction. With precision and boldness, the book spoke of romances, betrayals, and scandals in the French court, the symbol of decadence and opulence that would come to an end violently only seven years later.
The book’s plot is relatively simple: a couple of ex-lovers make an amoral gamble to corrupt good people, but in fact, there is a personal vendetta leading to the tragedy. What is exceptional about the book is the storytelling, completely original. It is like a collection of letters and was presented as “fictitious letters collected and published by a fictional author”. It was so close to reality and so well written that it was a scandal. Many believed the letters were real, only the names changed. And the theory that still persists is that Laclos, being a witness to the moral debauchery of the nobles, had the same intention as the supposed secret author in the book, to reveal the powers of the French nobility of the Ancien Régime.
The book is a combination of letters written by the various characters to each other, in particular, the Viscount de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. The two friends, former lovers, and eventual rivals are a natural example of narcissists lacking empathy for their victims. They use seduction as a weapon to socially control and exploit others, as a game and brag about how they can manipulate everyone with ease.
Although the current that defends Laclos’ rebellion exists, it is unlikely that his motivation was to criticize the nobility. The author, who circulated among them, was sponsored by the
Duke of Orléans and all the characters in the story are aristocrats, including the few pure hearts of the plot. More likely he just wrote what he witnessed. The writer was a military officer and amateur writer who wanted “to write a work that would depart from the ordinary, that would make noise, and that would remain on earth after his death.” He tried poetry, and librettos for operas, but without success, needing to maintain himself even as a military man.
On a mission abroad, in 1777, accompanying the Marquis de Montalembert, he began work on Les Liaisons Dangereuses, which he finished in six months, for which he asked for a leave of absence in order to finish. When it launched, the success was so absolute that it sold over a thousand copies, and to increase the daring reputation of Dangerous Liaisons, Queen Marie Antoinette herself read and loved the work. It is considered to this day one of the masterpieces of 18th-century literature.
I read the book around 1989, after having been strongly impacted by the brilliant performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich, and Michelle Pfeiffer in Stephen Frears‘ film. The letters are strong and detailed, and it’s a sensationally intelligent book. Yes, even better than the movie or the series adaptations (TV Globo) or cinema. This is because the letters are subjective in many ways, giving the version of the person who signs them and often not necessarily being the “truth”. When the characters argue, it’s up to the readers to understand between the lines and there’s no narrator to give us hints. It’s amazing. Especially since in the letters, in general, cynicism reigns, both on Valmont’s and Merteuil’s sides, so it’s difficult to take sides.
I’ve already posted about it here, but it’s amazing that the first movie in the story only appeared in the late 1950s, when Roger Vadim updated the story for the time, with Jeanne Moreau as Merteuil. In 1976 he returned to history, in a period film (but in the 1800s), with Une Femme Fidèle. It took the playwright Christopher Hampton to write the play adapting the book, and keeping it in its original time, causing a sensation in London so that the book was rediscovered internationally.
In London and on Broadway, Alan Rickman (yes, years before Harry Potter) had great success as Valmont but was not chosen for the cinema. There was a discussion for two versions. Director Milos Forman‘s work clashed with the studio and so Stephen Frears took over the 1988 production, which is a remake of the play and earned Oscar nominations for Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer. John Malkovich gave one of his greatest performances, but he was not nominated. The cast also included Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves.
Forman’s 1989 version, with Colin Firth in the role of Valmont and Annette Bening as Merteiul, was not as successful and radically alters the ending. Ten years later, Cruel Intentions, with Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Ryan Philippe, took the plot to present-day New York. There is currently a teen version on Netflix and soon Starz will launch the series about the youth and romance between Merteuil and Valmont, only mentioned by both in the letters.
The timelessness of the plot lies in the true motivation in all relationships: that of unrequited love. Merteuil, a strong woman and survivor in a patriarchal society, uses sex and seduction to remain independent, but she loves Valmont deeply. She realizes before he does that his intention to seduce the chaste Madame de Tourvel is genuinely what he’s never felt for anyone: true love. Jealous, Merteuil spares no effort to destroy her rival and ex-lover, bringing unhappiness and tragedy to both their lives and her own. Glenn Close‘s performance in the role is iconic.
Now 240 years after the book’s release, plus another 34 from the movie, some dialogues are even more uncomfortable, especially Tourvel’s submission when he falls in love. But it was in line with the times. With date timing, the Starz series should only enter the platform in November, but it’s worth remembering the work before that. In fact, always. It will be curious to see how much will be changed to suit such an anti-female narrative in current times. I’m quite curious.