This isn’t your father’s period piece. Legend has it that when Choderlos de Lacos first published the original novel, it was considered so scandalous that even Marie Antoinette’s personal copy had to be bound with a blank cover so nobody would know what book it was. Now, 206 years later, there’s no shame in appreciating this fine film by Stephen Frears, adapted by Christopher Hampton from his own play based on the novel. Really, this is all about chemistry, amid the human chess games of manipulation and seduction the ice cold Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close in perhaps her greatest performance) and the sleazy Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich) revel in, in their 18th century, French aristocratic ways. They are creatures of their own making, thoroughly Machiavellian in their schemes and leisure pursuits despite already virtually having it all, living in the lap of luxury. With such charismatic yet unpleasant characters driving the action and debauching innocents, the inevitable has to happen – downfall, metaphorical or physical. This film is more than just sex and sword fights: Instead, it’s a taut, delicious exercise in almost Shakespearean tragedy, as those skeletons in the closet get dangerously close to being revealed, while we await their comeuppance. It’s the combination of the intelligence of the script, direction and acting, which take careful heed of not drowning in the sumptuous aesthetics, that make what would otherwise have been a two hour bitch-fest a masterpiece.



March 10, 1989


Stephen Frears


Christopher Hampton (play), Choderlos de Laclos (novel)


Warner Bros.


Drama, Romance




119 minutes