According to the opening credits of Roger Vadim’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses, marriage is a game of chess, but you can’t play a game without knowing the rules and the first thing to notice about this chessboard is Juliette (Jeanne Moreau) and Valmont (Gérard Philipe) are on the same side. Instead of husband and wife competing against one another other, the black king and queen are hosting a party and their lovers are among the invited guests. Juliette and Valmont may not play by the rules of “conventional” marriage, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules, and when one of their lovers (Juliette’s, played by Nicolas Vogel) gets engaged without telling her, the insult can’t be allowed to pass.
Juliette does what any scorned woman would do – asks her husband to sleep with her lover’s fiancée, Cécile (Jeanne Valérie) – and her husband, while less enthused about seducing his cousin, quickly comes around to her plan, but then he meets Marianne (Annette Stroyberg), a bigger (married) fish to fry, and he can’t help but split his attentions.
The problem isn’t that Valmont wants to have sex with someone his wife didn’t assign (affairs are welcome as long as they tell each other about them) but the restraint he shows while seducing her. And if Les Liaisons Dangereuses ultimately does take a moralistic view on an open marriage, it’s not because they’re not monogamous. It’s because of how they treat the people they’re having extramarital affairs with — taking advantage of them and going out of their way to ruin their lives. It’s when Valmont doesn’t do this (at least to the degree that’s he capable of, given he’s pursuing a married woman, no matter what) that the arrangement starts to fall apart.
“Cruel” is a word film historian Kat Ellinger uses to describe the movie in her commentary track and these aren’t characters you’re meant to like, but it’s like they’re the spiders, and you’re the fly. At the same time you’re wondering why nobody can withstand their web, you’re getting tangled up in it yourself. Juliette and Valmont are at the center of it all, but the film doesn’t neglect its side characters, as seen with Cécile’s already compromised love life before Valmont gets involved.
This is definitely a film where it’s worth taking the time to replay a scene if you’re feeling confused. A lot of names get thrown at you at the beginning and keeping up with the subtitles (for no fault of their own) isn’t easy, due to the speed of the dialogue, the cunning of the characters, and how their strategies change on a dime. They also following a logic that takes some getting to, and while it does make sense, it won’t if you don’t catch everything.
Amazingly (as Ellinger discusses in her commentary track, along with Vadim’s direction), Les Liaisons Dangereuses is based on an 18th century epistolary novel. Vadim’s is one of the few adaptations (along with Roger Cumble’s Cruel Intentions) to reset it for modern times (it came out in 1959). It works and Ellinger makes some great observations about how Vadim incorporates the letters, the snow, and how the editing “brings you into people’s inner worlds.”
Les Liaisons Dangereuses is available on Blu-Ray and DVD starting November 12thfrom Kino Lorber.