Picks and Pans Review: Dangerous Liaisons

updated 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

John Malkovich is raging at Glenn Close. He thinks he's earned the right to bed her. Her refusal, he announces, will constitute a declaration of war. All right, says Close as the camera zooms in on her shark-like smile, "wa-a-a-a-r." Close stretches the word to at least five syllables; she's primed for battle. Another Fatal Attraction? Not quite. Close and Malkovich—costumed sumptuously by designer James Acheson in the silks and brocades of the 18th century—are doing a period piece. But don't expect Masterpiece Theatre gentility. This baby bites. British playwright Christopher Hampton has written a strikingly vivid film version of his recent London and Broadway hit, Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Purists may rant about American actors replacing the original Royal Shakespeare Company cast, but it's a specious argument. Hampton's play, adapted from Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 epistolary novel, concerns decadent, pre-Revolutionary French aristocrats. Don't Yanks have as much right as Brits to interpret the lives of Parisians? Any loss in the elocution of Hampton's elegant, epigrammatic dialogue finds compensation in the physical heat the new cast uses to thaw the play's icy cynicism. There's flesh on these characters now; their barbs draw blood. Malkovich as the Vicomte and Close as his former mistress, the Marquise, now engage in a cruel form of sexual gamesmanship. To win that night in bed with Close, Malkovich must first please her by deflowering a 15-year-old virgin (Uma Thurman) and turning a religious married woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) into an adulteress. Close shows how the subjugation of women in this society has perverted the Marquise's intelligence. "I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own," she tells the Vicomte. Close gives a juicy, jolting performance destined to become widely celebrated. Pfeiffer, who provides the only human warmth in this movie igloo, pierces the heart as a woman torn between piety and passion. Malkovich, a quirky actor capable of brilliance, may draw fire for not fitting the image of romantic hero. He shouldn't. The Vicomte doesn't seduce Thurman; he rapes her. He doesn't thrill Pfeiffer with his looks; he tricks her into thinking that her virtue has made him a better man. As a rake, his goal is conquest, not pleasure. It's the real love he begins to feel for Pfeiffer that foretells his ruin. He has broken the rules of the game. British director Stephen (My Beautiful Laundrette) Frears uses penetrating close-ups to capture every twist and hiss in this nest of vipers. Miraculously, he makes characters of 200 years ago seem as near as next door. You can read Liaisons as a metaphor for modern political aggression, a feminist tract or an attack on Thatcher England (the Prime Minister "would be very, very good as the Marquise," Frears has joked). Better to simply enjoy this spellbinder for what it is: a seductive, scary, savagely witty look at the unchanging way of the world. (R)

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