Over / Under: Dangerous Liaisons
by Matt Goldberg
February 17, 2008
For an introduction to the weekly retrospective column Over / Under written by Matt Goldberg, please visit the first post in the series.
I doubt I'll get a lot of hate mail on this one, but I have to share my shock when I started looking up the awards tally for Stephen Frears' 1988 period-piece Dangerous Liaisons. I was surprised that while the film was shown a lot of love in most categories, there was hardly any love for John Malkovich who, looking over his body of work, gave one of the best performances of his career in this film.
The year is Rococo, France. I'm not sure when that is exactly, but there's clearly no television and so the aristocracy, who don't have anything to occupy their time, decide to play cruel games of manipulation and soul-crushing. The two featured players are the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont (Malkovich).
Before I go any further in describing the plot, I must say that I have recently been informed that I drop too many F-bombs in my writing and that I'm "better than that". I'm really not, but I'll try to side-step the F-bomb by replacing it with the word "hug". Now, back to the plot:
Merteuil makes a bet with Valmont that he can't hug the hot but unhuggable Madame Marie de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). But if he can manage to hug that and bring proof of their hardcore hugging in the form of a letter by Tourvel, then Merteuil will in turn hug the shit out of Valmont. The exploration of love and cruelty (the latter of which screenwriter Christopher Hampton would once again explore in last year's Atonement to great failure) along with gender roles and manners in early 18th century France.
I don't know how to get inside the heads of critics and award-dispensers in 1988, but why so much acclaim for Close and Pfeiffer and no love for Malkovich? Close, I kind of get, but she's really more of a supporting role with a few juicy scenes. She doesn't really do much and leaves all the heavy lifting to Malkovich. As for Pfeiffer, she's deadweight. She has no chemistry with Malkovich and her portrayal of purity is over-wrought emotion of giving into her desires and hugging Malkovich. Their relationship is the crux of the film and in its two-hour run time, it's what I want less, and that's including all the scenes with Keanu Reeves because those are at least unintentionally hilarious (never cast surfer-type as 18th century anything).
Dangerous Liaisons isn't a bad film but it's certainly not worth seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture either. But that's not the real crime. The real crime was everyone overlooking Malkovich. For a guy whose roles almost always border on self-parody (and in Being John Malkovich it straight up was self-parody to some extent), his performance as Valmont is a welcome reminder that before the self-parody, there was a self to parody.
Over / Under: OVERRATED!
Next Week: Forrest Gump