Arriving towards the rear end of the 1980s, Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton's adaptation of the Choderlos de Laclos novel Dangerous Liaisons furnished upwardly mobile cinemagoers with a morality play for a moment of rampant immorality. We're more than half-invited to conspire alongside Glenn Close's scheming marquise and John Malkovich's wanton vicomte, devious 18th century masterminds who'd be perfect for one another if they didn't instead get their kicks fucking with everybody else around them. Using the lure of sex as a reward for the seduction of others, the two merrily go about sullying innocence, ruining marriages (if not entire lives) for sport, and causing as much emotional devastation as anybody can rustle up while strapped into a corset. Then, however, real feelings come into play, and the two schemers are set forcefully against one another.
Hampton's screenplay doesn't exactly shuck off the theatricality, coming up with protagonists who assume different roles to gain whatever it is they're after while toying with naive young things (pre-stardom outings for Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves) who can only be their fresh-faced selves. In this way, the film is perfectly cast, but the idea that Dangerous Liaisons is automatically more savage about human nature and human weakness than the genteel school of period drama is absurd; the film's emotional entanglements and dialogue are every bit as florid as the wallpaper in certain Merchant-Ivory productions. With the wordplay and dispensing of bon mots seeming arch in the extreme - clock the vicomte writing letters on the arsecheeks of his conquests ("I have just come...") - the film's MVP proves to be Frears, demonstrating once again what a fine director of actors he is in any context.
Close's withering is pitched with enough skill to overcome Hampton's heavy-handed attempts to turn the marquise into a proto-feminist and then an 18th century Alex Forrest; the vulpine Malkovich, draping himself over the furniture and sticking his eyes and nose down the Thurman decolletage, didn't again have this much fun until his renaissance as a scowling mid-90s villain (In the Line of Fire, Con Air). A little overrated, it's possible it now only works for viewers who can still find Close and Malkovich seductive enough to compensate for the unlikable character traits they spend much of the film exhibiting. Younger viewers might usefully be redirected towards 1999's Cruel Intentions, which shaped the same plot into a contemporary thriller, and managed to be savvy without being smarmy; also worth a look is 2003's terrific Korean variant Untold Scandal, which preserved the period trappings, but had real guts and heart where Hampton offers intellectual game-playing.
Dangerous Liaisons is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.