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Dangerous liaisons
[DVD]

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"Dangerous Liaisons," based on the 1782 Choderlos de Laclos novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses," is

tantalizingly wicked -- watching it makes the color rise to your cheeks. From the opening close-up of Glenn

Close as she grins with devilish self-satisfaction into her dressing mirror, the picture exerts an insinuating

hold. You feel as if it is being whispered in your ear.
Set just prior to the French Revolution, "Dangerous Liaisons" is about sex as gamesmanship, and its spirit is

keyed to Close's nakedly malevolent smile. Close plays the Marquise de Merteuil, a Parisian socialite whose days

are spent concocting elaborate erotic intrigues, and, poised before her vanity table, she seems majestically

corrupt, like an evil queen in a fairy story. With that opening glance, she draws the audience into her

confidence, making it a party to her cynical schemes.

It's this sense of complicity that makes the movie such a delectably naughty experience. This sort of wit and

immediacy is extraordinarily rare in a period film. Instead of making the action seem far off, the filmmakers

put the audience in the room with their characters. The film introduces us to two irresistible scoundrels -- the

Marquise and her coconspirator and former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich). The metaphor for sex

that director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Christopher Hampton (who adapted his own play) have set up for

exploration is war, and in the movie's opening sequence there's a rush of anticipation as Close and Malkovich,

in separate chambers, are coiffed and powdered by their servants for battle. For these players, mere pleasure --

physical pleasure, that is -- is the slightest of motives. Sex -- and its paltry adjunct, love -- is unworthy of

these aristocratic combatants; they're beneath them, prosaic, common.

For Valmont and the Marquise, victory is the ultimate pleasure -- the only pleasure. In two of his earlier films

-- "My Beautiful Laundrette" and "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid" -- Frears showed a savvy understanding of the games

lovers play. Here he glories in the intricacy of the strategies, the forged letters, the elaborate lies. With a

few deft, economical strokes, Frears sets the story. Hoping to take her revenge on a betrayer, the Marquise

conspires to have Valmont deflower the unwitting Ce'cile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), a virginal convent girl who

is to be her enemy's bride and who was chosen expressly for her purity. Though Valmont is always eager to

accommodate the Marquise, and the young girl is a luscious prize, the assignment is almost an insult to him.

It's too easy.

Instead, Valmont has marked a loftier peak to climb, a luminous beauty well-known for her piety and fidelity

named Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). But the meddling of Ce'cile's mother, Madame de Volanges (Swoosie

Kurtz), in the Vicomte's delicate maneuvers gives him reason to effect a plot that will satisfy both himself and

the Marquise. All this is done with the casual flourish of a master.

There's a sublime perversity in Frears' casting, especially that of Malkovich. With his coarse jackal's face and

lisping effeminacy, Malkovich seems the unlikeliest of Don Juans. But Malkovich brings a fascinating dimension

to his character that would be missing with a more conventionally handsome leading man. His presence underlines

just how small a role physical beauty plays in seduction. With Malkovich, everything turns on artistry and

experience. For him, lovemaking -- like most things -- is a matter of technique, preparation, will. By the time

he has lured the innocent Ce'cile into copying her boudoir key for the purpose of delivering the letters of the

ardent young Chevalier Danceny (Keanu Reeves), there is no choice left to her but to submit. It was too easy

after all.

For this reason, it is inevitable that Valmont and the Marquise become adversaries -- they're the only ones

worthy of each other. Close is harder to warm to than Malkovich; she's spinsterish and a little stern -- somehow

it's hard to imagine her enjoying a moment of sexual release. But perhaps that's the point Frears hopes to make.

The Marquise is an epic dissembler. It's appropriate that some of the scenes are set at the opera -- her

deceptions are positively Verdian. Close looks marvelous in the glorious costumes James Acheson has designed for

her, but she also seems imprisoned by them. In the same sense, she is imprisoned by her sex, and her anger is

what fuels the movie and gives it its propulsive urgency. Sex, jealousy, envy, revenge are so jumbled up in her

head that she hardly bothers to separate them. Her impulse, simply, is to exert her influence in the world --

how she exerts herself seems almost beside the point. This is her power. And she uses it willfully, whenever and

however she likes, without a thought for the damage.

The Marquise's compulsive destructiveness makes her a character with true classical grandeur. There's something

curdled in her. And perhaps this is most evident when Michelle Pfeiffer is onscreen. Of the three principal

roles, Pfeiffer's is the least obvious and the most difficult. Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and

Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it. Her porcelain-skinned beauty, in this regard, is

a great asset, and the way it's used makes it seem an aspect of her spirituality. Her purity shines through her

pores. For this reason, her submission to Valmont is doubly powerful. (Simply the physical contrast is a shock.)

When she falls, she falls perilously and deeply.

What happens for the viewer is mirrored in the changes in the characters. What began as an delicious amusement

deepens into a tragedy. The richness at the end of the film isn't quite what was expected at the beginning when

we admired the talcumy lightness of Philippe Rousselot's cinematography. The passion, for us and for them, comes

as a surprise. For them it's cataclysmic; for us, it's divine.

4. Plush and seductive, Dangerous Liaisons updates the French novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclosfilmed many

times beforeto 1930s Shanghai. For the most part, director Jin-ho Hur and screenwriter Yan Geling stay true to

the plot, a roundelay of sexual couplings and betrayals masterminded by a pair of self-involved aristocrats. The

results don't break much new ground but will satisfy fans of glossy soap operas.

Xie "Fan" Yifan (Korean star Jang Dong-gun), a wealthy but cold-blooded playboy, lusts after socialite Mo Jieyu

(Cecilia Cheung). Just dumped by a tycoon for 16-year-old virgin Beibei (Candy Wang), Mo is out for revenge, but

Fan isn't interested at first in deflowering another schoolgirl.

Instead, Fan sets his sights on Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), a widowed cousin who fled fighting in Manchuria for

Shanghai. He bets Mo that he can seduce Fenyu, and Beibei as well, if Mo will agree to become his lover.

Beibei has fallen in love with Dai (Shawn Dou), a college student who is giving her drawing lessons. Mo, who has

offered to become Beibei's chaperone, tries to manipulate the two into an affair. Meanwhile, Fan has trouble

winning over the suspicious Fenyu. The characters will soon be coping with several reversals.

The basic plot has been used so many times that it looks a little threadbare now, especially since Jin-ho Hur

treats it with a bit too much reverence. The film's pacing is extremely slow, with much attention lavished on

clothes, furniture, cars and other period details. The careful lighting makes everyone look like they're in a

Chanel ad, and a preponderance of close-ups has a claustrophobic effect.

The repressed, mousy Du Fenyu is not the best fit for Zhang Ziyi, an actress who simply looks too intelligent to

play a naive widow. With pale make-up and dowdy clothes, she fails to make much of an impact as a heartbreaker,

especially since she spends the first hour of the film frowning. Jang Dong-gun looks dapper enough as Fan, but

his performance here is limited. For dissipation, for example, the best he can do is lean against a door or tilt

his head.

Only Cecilia Cheung, a strong presence in Hong Kong films for the past decade, makes much of an impression. Her

Mo Jieyu is properly cold and calculating, but she's also the kind of knockout who can wrap men around her

finger. And Cheung finds a way to let us see the passion under her glittering shell.

The Shanghai setting doesn't add much to the story, but it allows the filmmakers to get away with more politics

than a contemporary story would. Chinese nationalism, student rebels and the refugee problem all make cameo

appearances.

But on the whole, this version of Dangerous Liaisons is discouragingly old-fashioned. Characters sigh, the

camera swoons, and everything has an airbrushed look. Viewers expecting a little more bite will be disappointed.
Date Added: 07/07/2013 by Rachel
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