Saturday, January 18, 2014

Dangerous Liaisons and complex characters

You've seen the 1988 Dangerous Liaisons, with John Malkovich as the rake Valmont, Glenn Close as the schemer Merteuil, Uma Thurman and Keanu Reeves and--well, you get the idea: it's a packed cast with a lot of pretty people. (OK, Malkovich isn't pretty per se, but he's got an interesting face.) I saw it probably when I was in high school and I remember loving it. So much so that when I took French in college, I bought the 18th-century Laclos book in French. (Still haven't read it.)

I rewatched it last night and I was struck by how multiple the motivations seem to be for so many of the characters. That makes immediate sense for Michelle Pfeiffer's character Tourvel, who is torn between her desire to be virtuous and her blooming love for Valmont. I mean, that model of inner conflict--desire for X but conflicting desire for Y--is not all that unusual.

But what about John Malkovich's Valmont? He's introduced as a devilish rake who is interested in Pfeiffer simply for the sport of it: she's a challenge, he likes seducing women. In classic rom-com style, he falls in love with the woman he's wooing, but of course, in classic rom-com style, he's unable to admit this to himself and lose that part that he thinks is most important to him: his rake's detachment.

I say "classic rom-com" because this movie is so clearly not--certainly not a comedy at least. If it were just Valmont and Tourvel, it might be. But Valmont's motivations multiply when we look at his relations with other characters: he loves Tourvel but he loves himself; he loves Tourvel but he wants to spend a night with Merteuil, his friend and fellow schemer; but Merteuil is jealous of the real love Valmont has for Tourvel; and Valmont is also motivated by revenge against Swoosie Kurtz's character Volanges for interfering with Tourvel, which is why he agrees to ruin Kurtz's daughter, Cecile Volanges; and...

What's amazing to me is that characters have to do a lot of talking to make these plans plain. So Merteuil explains why she wants revenge on Volanges in what would be a boring exposition scene. And that's just one issue. So why does a movie with so many characters with so many different motivations work, even though so much of the movie is patiently explaining those motivations?

I think there are a few reasons, not least of all is the sumptuous period piece-ness of it all: there's a lot to look at on the screen while things are being talked about. (Watching with Sarah, every once in a while we would discuss the styles and furniture of the various rooms.) Then there's the basic motivations being talked about: love, lust, anger, hate, jealousy. And all those motivations are tied in to concrete people, not abstract concerns, so the movie always gives us some visual to focus on. Then there's the shifting nature of the motivations and conflicts and relationships; so Merteuil may explain why she wants revenge by ruining Cecile Volanges's honor, but once Valmont accomplishes that, now we have Cecile's relationship with Valmont to deal with, as they become more intimate.

1 comment:

  1. Why does Merteuil gets upset when Valmont tells her that he is in love with Tourvel???? I don't get that part.