Dangerous Liaisons

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Dangerous Liaisons
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Produced byNorma Heyman
Hank Moonjean
Written byChristopher Hampton
StarringGlenn Close
John Malkovich
Michelle Pfeiffer
Music byGeorge Fenton
CinematographyPhilippe Rousselot
Edited byMick Audsley
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date(s)
  • December 16, 1988 (1988-12-16)
Running time119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$14 million
Box office$34.7 million
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Dangerous Liaisons
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Produced byNorma Heyman
Hank Moonjean
Written byChristopher Hampton
StarringGlenn Close
John Malkovich
Michelle Pfeiffer
Music byGeorge Fenton
CinematographyPhilippe Rousselot
Edited byMick Audsley
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date(s)
  • December 16, 1988 (1988-12-16)
Running time119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$14 million
Box office$34.7 million

Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 historical drama film based upon Christopher Hampton's play Les liaisons dangereuses, which in turn was a theatrical adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

The film was directed by Stephen Frears.[1] The performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, the costume design by James Acheson, and the screenplay by Christopher Hampton, garnered critical acclaim. Swoosie Kurtz and Mildred Natwick appeared in supporting roles, as did young relatively unknown actors Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture; it won those for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction.[2][3]


Set in Paris during the 1700s, the Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) appears to be virtuous and upstanding but is, in fact, a sexually ravenous, immoral schemer who plays games with men out of bitterness at the constricted station of women in her society. She decides to exact revenge on a recent lover (Bastide) by having his young new virgin fiancée, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), the daughter of Merteuil's cousin Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), seduced and ruined before his return from Corsica. Despite of having had many previous lovers, Merteuil is vowed to take revenge for Bastide leaving her as no man has done so in the past.

Merteuil calls on her sometime partner, the rakish and similarly amoral Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), to do the deed at the reasoning of revenge as Valmont's previous mistress also cheated with Bastide at some time prior. At first, Valmont refuses her proposition due to the easiness of seducing a virgin; the concern over his prestigious reputation; and that he is busy trying to seduce the virtuous and religious Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is spending time at his aunt's (Madame du Rosemonde) manor house while her husband Dijon is away in Burgundy. He eventually agrees to Merteuil's request, if she shares her bed with him, as a prize for his conquest of Tourvel. Merteuil agrees, but requires written proof of the conquest.

Valmont is led by Azolan (Peter Capaldi) to an impoverished family being expelled by the French monarchy for not paying taxes, which Valmont donates 56 livres to satisfy the debt as a superficially virtuous impression to Tourvel. Valmont instructs his page Azolan to seduce Tourvel's maid Julie and pressures her to surrender any letters between Tourvel and Volange. Upon discovering that the uptight and superficial Madame de Volanges had been secretly writing to Madame de Tourvel to warn her against his evil nature, Valmont changes his mind and decides to follow Merteuil's scheme. They take advantage of the fact that young Cécile is secretly in love with her music teacher, the Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves), whom Merteuil ulteriorly introduced to Cécile in hopes of provoking arousal; while knowing that Danceny is poor and therefore does not qualify in the eyes of her mother as a potential suitor.

At his aunt's manor, Valmont tricks Cécile into providing access to her bedchamber so that he can deliver Danceny's love letters unobserved, but instead shows up and rapes her as she pleads with him to leave. Over breakfast the next morning, he taunts a visibly distressed Cécile, and she runs from the room in tears. Later that night, he attempts to enter her room again, but she has barred her door and is seen sobbing within her chamber.

Madame de Tourvel further feels uncomfortable at the presence of Valmont, and demands that he leave his aunt's manor. Frustrated, he agrees, and visits Merteuil, now willing to seduce Cécile to exact revenge on Volanges. Merteuil tells Valmont her story and motive of becoming the superficial character; in the end resisting Valmont's sexual attempt without the written proof needed.

Madame de Volanges, distraught by her daughter's sudden state of illness, calls upon Merteuil to speak to Cécile. Merteuil advises Cécile to consensually continue an affair with Valmont, telling her she should take advantage of all the lovers she can acquire in a life so constricted by her sex. Cécile takes her advice and continues her affair with Valmont. In the meantime, Madame du Merteuil discreetly seduces Danceny and engages a sexual affair with him.

Valmont meanwhile steadily targets his main prey, Madame de Tourvel, who, despite suspecting his base motives, eventually gives in to his tireless advances. However, Valmont, the lifelong womanizer, has unexpectedly fallen in love with Tourvel.

Merteuil had promised Valmont a night in her company should he be successful in his scheme to seduce Madame de Tourvel and provide written proof (i.e. love letter) of his conquest. Nevertheless, Merteuil becomes secretly jealous of Tourvel due to suspicion that Valmont has fell in love with her.

Cécile later becomes pregnant with Valmont's child, but suffers a miscarriage, thus avoiding a scandal. When Valmont succeeds in entering an affair with Tourvel, Merteuil refuses to grant Valmont his prize due to the lack of a love letter; and unless he breaks off with Tourvel completely; Merteuil threatens to ruin his proud reputation as a debaucher. Valmont, his ego damaged, heeds her request and coldly leaves Tourvel, repeating a phrase Merteuil suggests: "It is beyond my control." Tourvel emotionally endures a nervous breakdown and begins to become desperately ill. Valmont goes back to Merteuil to collect his reward, who in the meantime discovers through a secret door that she has taken Chevalier Danceny as her lover. Valmont arranges for Danceny to leave Merteuil for Cécile, which leads to him once again demanding the immediate fulfillment of her promise. The Marquise refuses further insulting Valmont of falling in love with Tourvel. Valmont eventually slaps Merteuil, who rejects Valmont's claim to his prize as they declare war upon each other.

The Marquise reveals to Danceny that Valmont had seduced Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel. Guilty and despairing, Valmont allows Danceny to fatally wound him. Before he dies, he asks Danceny to visit Tourvel and assure her of his true love; Valmont also hands him a collection of letters from Merteuil that detail her scheming. After hearing Valmont's message from Danceny, Madame de Tourvel dies by depression and blood letting by the convent nuns at the supervision of Madame de Volanges (whom assumingly has also returned Cécile back into the cloister).

Upon discovery of Valmont's death, Merteuil goes through a nervous breakdown in her chateau. Danceny publishes Merteuil's letters, which become a scandal, and she is booed and disgraced by the audience at the opera. The movie closes as she suffers a breakdown while removing her make-up.



Dangerous Liaisons was the first English-language film adaptation of Laclos's novel, and was based on Christopher Hampton's Olivier Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated theatrical adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company,[4] directed by Howard Davies and featuring Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

The film was shot entirely on location in France, specifically in the region Île-de-France, and featured historical buildings such as the Château de Vincennes in Val-de-Marne, the Château de Champs-sur-Marne, the Château de Guermantes in Seine-et-Marne, the Château du Saussay in Essonne, and the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles.[5]

This was the final film appearance of Academy Award- and Tony Award-nominated actress Mildred Natwick, who played the role of Madame de Rosemonde.[6]

Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role of Cécile, and Sarah Jessica Parker turned it down, before it went to Uma Thurman.[6]


The score of Dangerous Liaisons was written by the British film music composer George Fenton. The soundtrack also includes works a number of baroque and classical composers, reflecting the story's 18th-Century-French setting; pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck feature prominently, although no French composers are included.[7]

TrackSong TitleComposer
1Dangerous Liaisons Main Title/"Dressing"George Fenton
2"Madame De Tourvel"George Fenton
3"The Challenge"George Fenton
4"O Malheureuse Iphigénie!", from Iphigénie en TaurideChristoph Willibald Gluck
5"Going Hunting" – "Allegro" from Organ Concerto No. 13, "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale"George Frideric Handel, arr.George Fenton
6"Valmont's First Move"/"The Staircase"George Fenton
7"Beneath The Surface"George Fenton
8"The Set Up"George Fenton
9"The Key"George Fenton
10"Her Eyes Are Closing"George Fenton
11"Ombra mai fu", from SerseGeorge Frideric Handel
12"Tourvel's Flight"George Fenton
13"Success"George Fenton
14"Emilie"George Fenton
15"Beyond My Control"George Fenton
16"A Final Request"George Fenton
17"Ombra Mai Fu" reprise/"The Mirror"George Frideric Handel/George Fenton
18Dangerous Liaisons End CreditsGeorge Fenton
19"Allegro" from Concerto in a Minor For Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065Johann Sebastian Bach


Dangerous Liaisons holds a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes,[8] and a score of 74 on Metacritic,[9] indicating a positive critical reception.

Pauline Kael in The New Yorker described it as "heaven – alive in a way that movies rarely are."[9] Hal Hinson in the Washington Post wrote that the film's "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."[10] Roger Ebert called it "an absorbing and seductive movie."[11] Variety considered it an "incisive study of sex as an arena for manipulative power games."[12] Vincent Canby in The New York Times hailed it as a "kind of lethal drawing-room comedy."[13]

Christopher Hampton received critical acclaim for his screenplay, with Time Out writing that "one of the film's enormous strengths is scriptwriter Christopher Hampton's decision to go back to the novel, and save only the best from his play."[14] James Acheson and Stuart Craig were also praised for their work, with Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times stating that "the film's details of costuming (by The Last Emperor's James Acheson) and production design (by Stuart Craig of Gandhi and The Mission) are ravishing."[9] All three would go on to win Academy Awards for their work on this film.

Glenn Close received considerable praise for her performance; she was lauded by The New York Times for her "richness and comic delicacy,"[13] while Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that, once she "finally lets loose and gives way to complete animal despair, Close is horrifying."[9] Roger Ebert thought the two lead roles were "played to perfection by Close and Malkovich... their arch dialogues together turn into exhausting conversational games, tennis matches of the soul."[11]

Michelle Pfeiffer was also widely acclaimed for her portrayal, despite playing, in the opinion of the Washington Post, "the least obvious and the most difficult" role. "Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it."[10] The New York Times called her performance a "happy surprise."[13] Roger Ebert, considering the trajectory of her career, wrote that "in a year that has seen her in varied assignments such as Married to the Mob and Tequila Sunrise, the movie is more evidence of her versatility. She is good when she is innocent and superb when she is guilty."[11] Pfeiffer would later win a British Academy Film Award for her performance.

The casting of John Malkovich proved to be a controversial decision that divided critics. The New York Times, while admitting there was the "shock of seeing him in powdered wigs", concluded that he was "unexpectedly fine. The intelligence and strength of the actor shape the audience's response to him."[13] The Washington Post was similarly impressed with Malkovich's performance: "There's a sublime perversity in Frears' casting, especially that of Malkovich... [he] brings a fascinating dimension to his character that would be missing with a more conventionally handsome leading man."[10] Variety was less impressed, stating that while the "sly actor conveys the character's snaky, premeditated Don Juanism... he lacks the devilish charm and seductiveness one senses Valmont would need to carry off all his conquests."[12]

The movie is also notable as the first significant role of Uma Thurman. Thurman, then 18, first appeared nude (with bare breasts) in a very sensational erotic scene with Malkovich, then 35.

Awards and nominations[edit]

At the 61st Academy Awards, Dangerous Liaisons won three Oscars out of seven nominations, for Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton), Best Costume Design (James Acheson), and Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig and Gérard James). Its four unsuccessful nominations were for Best Actress (Glenn Close), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Pfeiffer), Best Original Score (George Fenton), and the Academy Award for Best Picture.[3] Director Stephen Frears and lead actor John Malkovich were not nominated.

At the 43rd British Academy Film Awards, Michelle Pfeiffer won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Christopher Hampton won for Best Screenplay. The film received a further eight nominations, in the categories of Best Direction (Stephen Frears), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Close), Best Cinematography (Philippe Rousselot), Best Costume Design (Acheson), Best Original Film Score (Fenton), Best Editing (Mick Audsley), Best Make Up Artist (Jean-Luc Russier) and Best Production Design (Craig).[3]

In addition to his Oscar and BAFTA awards, Christopher Hampton also won the London Film Critics' Circle Award for Screenwriter of the Year, and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.[3]

Stephen Frears won the César Award for Best Foreign Film[3] and Best Director from the Boston Society of Film Critics. The film was second only to Mississippi Burning in the National Board of Review's Top 10 films.

Philippe Rousselot was nominated for both the American Society of Cinematographers Award and the British Society of Cinematographers Award.[3]

Awarding bodyAwardNomineeResult
Academy AwardsBest PictureNorma Heyman
Hank Moonjean
Best ActressGlenn CloseNominated
Best Supporting ActressMichelle PfeifferNominated
Best Adapted ScreenplayChristopher HamptonWon
Best Original ScoreGeorge FentonNominated
Best Costume DesignJames AchesonWon
Best Art DirectionStuart Craig
Gérard James
American Society of CinematographersOutstanding Achievement in CinematographyPhilippe RousselotNominated
BAFTA AwardsBest DirectionStephen FrearsNominated
Best Actress in a Leading RoleGlenn CloseNominated
Best Actress in a Supporting RoleMichelle PfeifferWon
Best ScreenplayChristopher HamptonWon
Best CinematographyPhilippe RousselotNominated
Best Original Film ScoreGeorge FentonNominated
Best Costume DesignJames AchesonNominated
Best Make Up ArtistJean-Luc RussierNominated
Best EditingMick AudsleyNominated
Best Production DesignStuart CraigNominated
British Society of CinematographersBest CinematographyPhilippe RousselotNominated
César AwardsBest Foreign FilmStephen FrearsWon
London Critics CircleScreenwriter of the YearChristopher HamptonWon
Writers Guild of AmericaBest Screenplay Based on Material from Another MediumChristopher HamptonWon

Related adaptations[edit]

Three decades before Dangerous Liaisons, Roger Vadim adapted the Laclos novel into Les Liaisons dangereuses, a French film starring Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Philipe and Annette Vadim. Less than a year after Dangerous Liaisons was released, Miloš Forman adapted the novel into Valmont, starring Colin Firth in the title role, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly.

In 1999, Roger Kumble adapted the novel into Cruel Intentions, a drama involving Prep School students in New York, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon as well as a cameo from Dangerous Liaisons cast member Swoosie Kurtz. In 2003, Untold Scandal, a South Korean adaptation, was released; it was set in the same time as the original novel, but in the Kingdom of Joseon. In 2012, a Chinese adaptation, "Dangerous Liaisons (危險關係)," was released, directed by Hur Jin-ho, a Korean director, and starring Zhang Ziyi.

Almost 25 years after he played Valmont, John Malkovich directed a French-language version of Christopher Hampton's play in Paris, which ran at the Théâtre de l'Atelier.[15][16] In December 2012, the production is being brought to Lansburgh Theatre by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for a limited run in Washington D.C.[17]


  1. ^ "Stephen Frears". theauteurs.com. Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  2. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-07-31. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) - Awards". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  4. ^ "Olivier Winners 1986 – The Official London Theatre Guide". officiallondontheatre.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  5. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – Filming locations". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  6. ^ a b "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – Trivia". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  7. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – Soundtracks". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  8. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons Movie Reviews, Pictures". rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  9. ^ a b c d "Dangerous Liaisons reviews at Metacritic.com". metacritic.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  10. ^ a b c Hinson, Hal (January 13, 1989). "'Dangerous Liaisons'". washingtonpost.com. 
  11. ^ a b c Ebert, Roger (January 13, 1989). "Dangerous Liaisons :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". rogerebert.suntimes.com. 
  12. ^ a b "Dangerous Liaisons Review". variety.com. 1988-01-01. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  13. ^ a b c d Canby, Vincent (December 21, 1988). "Passion in the Ancien Régime". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons". Time Out London. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  15. ^ "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (in French). Théâtre de l'Atelier. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  16. ^ Trueman, Matt (3 February 2012). "John Malkovich directs Dangerous Liaisons on stage". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  17. ^ Jones, Kenneth (November 6, 2012). "John Malkovich's French-Language Staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses Will Dawn in DC in December". Playbill. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 

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