Classic Literature Film Adaptations Week: Slut-Shaming in the 1700s: ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ and ‘Cruel Intentions’

Period dress
This is a guest post by Jessica Freeman-Slade.

Name more than five novels in which sex, and all its consequences, takes center stage. OK, you’ve got The Story of O, Justine (the infamous novel written by the Marquis de Sade), Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and of course, the juggernaut 50 Shades of Gray trilogy… but no matter what your previous reading list, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses is in a class by itself when it comes to stories about sex. Better known by its 1985 English stage adaptation by Christopher Hampton, Laclos’s original tale is written in epistolary form, consisting of a series of letters sent between the Marquise de Merteuil and her friend the Vicomte de Valmont, as they scheme to seduce and ruin the virtuous Madame de Tourvel and the virginal schoolgirl Cécile de Volanges. Merteuil and Valmont’s wicked plots turn on the consequences of unbridled lust in a society where reputations are valued above all else—and, as Merteuil uses Valmont’s sexual escapades to her own advantage, it can be read as a Rococo master class on the consequences of gossip and “slut-shaming.”


Valmont and Merteuil
Sebastian and Kathryn

Dangerous Liaisons has had a number of film iterations (including a surprisingly steamy 2012 Chinese adaptation), but the most famous of these are as different and yet equally decadent as petit fours and dry martinis. In the Stephen Frears 1988 production of Dangerous Liaisons, Merteuil (Glenn Close) and Valmont (John Malkovich) strut in gilded costumes and powdered faces, their elegant trappings masking their cruel plots to destroy Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) and Cécile (a barely legal Uma Thurman). In the second, the 1999 Roger Kumble adaptation, Cruel Intentions, drops us into modern-day New York, in which the wealthy stepsiblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) plot to destroy the naïve Cecile (Selma Blair) and the proud Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon). The stakes in each of these dramas are not only sexual, but obsessed with honor, power, and who gets to claim it. And in both adaptations, the performances by Close and Gellar show that it’s Merteuil’s grudges (and not Valmont’s impulses) that lay the groundwork for the sexual manipulation. It’s less than ideal to have women as such villains, but Laclos left us one of the strongest and most complex female characters in all of literature—for better or for worse—and these ladies sink their teeth into all of Merteuil’s depravity.
The opening sequence, as Merteuil and Valmont dress for the day, is enough to draw anyone into this period piece, but it also gives you an appreciation of how much artifice one might have carried about as a member of the aristocracy. The presentation of the aristocracy’s trappings serve as a visual parallel to Merteuil’s hypocrisy: because society considers her intelligent and full of social graces, she is able to advise (and manipulate) the just-out-of-the-convent Cécile, who is promised in marriage to Merteuil’s former lover (a man obsessed with Cécile’s purity).

Cecile and Merteuil

Merteuil entices Valmont, widely known for his many love affairs with women across Paris, to seduce Cécile because she knows just how much harm such a scandal will do to Cécile’s future. She delivers a great treatise on how she performs in society, how she practices deception and conceals her true desires, and it serves not just as a frightening defense of her own actions, but as a monologue on the required falsehoods that women must perform to be considered “good.”
The other women in the original tale, as Merteuil would explain it, have far less control over their own desires than she does—and so they must suffer for it. Cécile is, by any definition, raped by Valmont, yet she is persuaded that his seduction is all in the service of making her a better lover to her future husband and to her secret crush, her music teacher Danceny (a woefully outclassed Keanu Reeves.)

Cecile writes on Valmont

Meanwhile Tourvel rebuffs Valmont’s advances on her, pleading that instead of tempting her desires (a wickedness that supercedes any innate goodness he might pretend to have), he leave her alone to mourn their unrequited romance in peace.

Valmont and Tourvel

As Valmont, Malkovich does a wonderful job of preening and crafting his seductions to fit each victim, wooing Cécile with tutelage and Tourvel with overtures of passionate, virtuous love. He only persuades her to sleep with him once he declares that, if he cannot have her, he must kill himself instead. As Tourvel, Pfeiffer swoons prettily, and cries even better when Valmont abandons her. By the time he ultimately seduces her, Valmont has fallen utterly in love with Tourvel—what seems a promise to a happier ending. And yet, Merteuil had promised Valmont that he would get the chance to sleep with her after seducing Tourvel. Furious with his transferred affections, Merteuil whips Valmont into a frenzy by denying him his victory sex—and the allure of remaining forever entangled with him, in negotiations rather than in the sheets, leaves her with the upper hand. The downfall, it seems, is being ruled by your desires once more—and thus, Valmont abandons Tourvel with only one line of explanation: “It’s beyond my control.” This is the ultimate threat to his manhood, the ultimate assertion that he is, in fact, more than just sexual impulses.
In the modern-day adaptation, meanwhile, the wicked ways of the Merteuil-Valmont household get to be a little more openly declared, and the sexual escapades a little more explicit—more petty, perhaps, but just as fun to watch.

Sebastian and Kathryn

Kathryn and Sebastian now live in a townhouse and attend an elite boarding school—Kathryn’s desire to ruin Cecile comes when Cecile begins dating her former boyfriend, and Sebastian’s aims on Annette (aka the Tourvel figure) come when he spots her manifesto, “Why I Plan to Wait” in Seventeen. “Can you imagine, diddling the new headmaster’s daughter?… She’ll be my greatest victory,” Sebastian crows, and Kathryn ups the ante by turning it into a bet: if he fails to seduce Annette, Kathryn gets his vintage car, but if he succeeds, she’ll give him sex, a.k.a. “something you’ve been obsessing about ever since our parents got married.” In the modern version, Kathryn openly flirts with Sebastian, laying out the sexual terms as explicitly as she needs to entice him. But her explanation of her reputation is far less self-satisfied than Close’s period piece—Kathryn is openly resentful, in part because she’s entitled to her full self-expression and sexual knowledge. The modernity allows a more open Merteuil figure, but it makes it harder to feel sympathy and admiration for her. (Also tough to admire, the crucifix she fondles while espousing her Christian faith, later opening to serve as a coke spoon.)

Setting the film in modern dress changes the strict sexual mores, and thus makes their transgressions far less shocking or threatening than the period adaptation. Throughout the film, Kathryn makes several advances on Sebastian as she quizzes him about the progress of his various seductions.

Cecile

In addition, the shifting of all the characters to the same age group makes Cecile’s seduction a little less about the violation of a child, and more about sexual sophistication. Thus Cecile’s purity becomes more about her naivety, and Blair plays her for laughs, both in Kathryn’s kissing tutorial in the park and during Sebastian’s manipulations. It’s coerced, certainly, but it doesn’t have quite the same evil punch as that of the period film.
But, on the upside, the modern setting makes Witherspoon’s Annette more nuanced than that of Pfeiffer’s Tourvel. Sebastian’s vows of love to her sound false from the very start, and she’s much more self-aware and skeptical than he initially suspects. “What have you heard?” he asks. “That you promise girls the world in order to get them in bed with you,” she responds calmly. Instead of following Laclos’s template, Sebastian and Annette’s romance only develops once she believes that he is letting down his guard with her, that she sees the real him instead of his playboy alter-ego. He makes goofy faces with her, he laughs with her, and when they ultimately do have sex, it is shot in tight, tender close-up, an extremely different framing than that of his scenes with Kathryn. As a result of the sincerity of their romance, it becomes even more devastating when Sebastian flounders in trying to break up with Annette. “I’m completely fucked up,” he says. “I agree, you’re completely fucked up!” she yells back, slapping him and sending him out of the room.

But Laclos’s novel does not leave Merteuil consequence-free, and both films find a way to ultimately tie her fate back to that asset she prizes most highly: her reputation. In Frears’ adaptation, a guilt-ridden Valmont, despondent over having to abandon his beloved, dying Tourvel, allows himself to be killed in a duel with Danceny, but not before handing over his many letters of correspondence with Merteuil documenting all her plots and wicked devices. Merteuil is rendered senseless by grief at the loss of Valmont, and then finds her the outcast of Parisian society, booed at the opera after the revelation of her role in countless scandals. And so ultimately the scandal falls back on her—her reputation destroyed not by a few careless words, but by her own documented hand. Close’s exquisite performance ends as Merteuil wipes the powder and rouge from her face, showing her true colors at last.
The modern adaptation has a little more fun as well—and it may be ripe for an even more modern update, one that would take advantage of social media to ruin Merteuil’s reputation once and for all. Sebastian is hit by a car and dies, avowing his love, in Annette’s forgiving arms. At his memorial service, a grieving Kathryn finds the stairs of the school chapel plastered with Xeroxed pages from Sebastian’s diary, documenting all her lies and misdeeds. In a surprising restoral of agency, it is Annette who recovered the diary, and gets to drive off into the sunset unscathed (in Sebastian’s gorgeous car, no less.)
It seems, for both interpretations, that the cruelest punishment for a villain is to have a public face on their private crimes. As Kathryn and Merteuil no doubt discover, the scorn of society is enough to make any private victories feel insignificant, and in the end, the final reputation ruined is that of the first person to spread the wicked rumor. Les Liaisons Dangereuses was the source of the phrase, “Revenge is a dish best served cold,” and even reading from a modern perspective, you can relish this dish only as much as you can enjoy seeing women tear each other down over sexual escapades. A huge step forward for what female characters get to do in fiction, perhaps, but a mixed message in terms of women’s sexual expression.

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Jessica Freeman-Slade is a cookbook editor at Random House, and has written reviews for The Rumpus, The Millions, The TK Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Specter Magazine, among others. She lives in Morningside Heights, NY.
 
 
 

One Comment

  • Posted June 18, 2015 at 10:51 pm | Permalink

    I preferred Milos Foreman’s “Valmont”: compare, almost every role is filled with a superior actor, with the possible exception of Malkovich vs. Colin Firth, although I think most women would find Firth infinitely more romantic in the lead for all Malkovich’s acting chops, he’s just not a romantic leading man.

    Fairuza Balk vs. Uma Thurman
    Meg Tilly vs. Michelle Phieffer
    Siân Phillips vs. Swoosie Kurtz (hoo-boy, a KO there)
    Annette Bening vs. Glenn Close (again, Close better actress, MUCH less sexy, and Bening plays deviously cunning so well, you really hate her, Close you just find annoying)
    and mostly
    Keanu Reeves vs. Henry Thomas, although Keanu is mercifully only in 1-2 scenes in the entire movie, probably for just that reason. I’d be willing to bet the studio forced that casting due to cold feet about the viability of such a costume drama, throw in some hot (at the time) young actors to try to draw the teeny-boppers?

    I find the plotting better and Foreman is a better director, Valmont has a European sensibility while DL is decidedly American. The seduction scene with Firth/Balk alone shows Foreman’s mastery, the seduction/rape is sexy (by the estimation of 3 women with whom I attended the film when it came out) while the Malkovich/Thurman scene is just creepy (of course, that also may have been due to all 3 women swooning over about anything Firth does, even the rape/seduction of an innocent young teenager).

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