Dangerous Liaisons

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Dangerous Liaisons
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Stephen Frears
Produced by Norma Heyman
Hank Moonjean
Written by Christopher Hampton
Starring Glenn Close
John Malkovich
Michelle Pfeiffer
Swoosie Kurtz
Keanu Reeves
Mildred Natwick
Uma Thurman
Music by George Fenton
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Edited by Mick Audsley
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release dates
  • December 16, 1988 (1988-12-16)
Running time
119 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $14 million
Box office $34.7 million

Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 historical drama film based upon Christopher Hampton's play Les liaisons dangereuses, which in turn was a theatrical adaptation of the 18th-century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

The film was directed by Stephen Frears.[1] The performances of Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, the cinematography of Philippe Rousselot, the costume design by James Acheson, and the screenplay by Christopher Hampton, garnered critical acclaim. Swoosie Kurtz, Mildred Natwick and Peter Capaldi appeared in supporting roles, as did young relatively unknown actors Keanu Reeves and Uma Thurman.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture; it won those for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Art Direction.[2][3]


The Marquise de Merteuil (Glenn Close) appears to be virtuous and upstanding, but in fact is a sexually ravenous, amoral schemer who plays games with men out of bitterness at the constricted station of women in her society. She decides to exact revenge on a recent lover by having his young new fiancee, Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman), the daughter of Merteuil's cousin Madame de Volanges (Swoosie Kurtz), seduced and ruined. Merteuil calls on her sometime-partner, the rakish and similarly amoral Vicomte de Valmont (John Malkovich), to do the deed. At first, Valmont refuses her proposition; he is busy trying to seduce the virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), who is spending time at his aunt's manor house while her husband is abroad.

Upon discovering that the uptight and superficial Madame de Volanges had been secretly writing to Madame de Tourvel to warn her against his evil nature, Valmont changes his mind and decides to follow Merteuil's scheme. They take advantage of the fact that young Cécile is secretly in love with her music teacher, the Chevalier Raphael Danceny (Keanu Reeves), who is penniless and therefore does not qualify in the eyes of her mother as a potential suitor.

At his aunt's manor, Valmont tricks Cécile into providing access to her bedchamber so that he can deliver Danceny's love letters unobserved, but instead shows up and rapes her as she pleads with him to leave. Over breakfast the next morning, he taunts a visibly distressed Cécile, and she runs from the room in tears. Later that night, he attempts to enter her room again, but she has barred her door and is seen sobbing within her chamber. Madame de Volanges, distraught by her daughter's sudden state of illness, calls upon Merteuil to speak to Cécile. Merteuil advises Cécile to consensually continue an affair with Valmont, telling her she should take advantage of all the lovers she can acquire in a life so constricted by her gender. Cécile takes her advice and later becomes pregnant with Valmont's child, but suffers a miscarriage, thus avoiding a scandal.

Valmont meanwhile steadily targets his main prey, Madame de Tourvel, who, despite suspecting his base motives, eventually gives in to his tireless advances. However, Valmont, the lifelong womanizer, has unexpectedly fallen in love with Tourvel.

Merteuil had promised Valmont a night in her company should he be successful in his scheme to seduce Madame de Tourvel and provide written proof of his conquest. Nevertheless, secretly jealous of Tourvel, she refuses to grant Valmont his prize unless he breaks off with Tourvel completely; Merteuil threatens to ruin his proud reputation as a debaucher. Valmont, his ego damaged, heeds her request and coldly leaves Tourvel, who falls desperately ill. Valmont goes back to Merteuil, who in the meantime has taken Chevalier Danceny as her lover. Valmont arranges for Danceny to leave Merteuil for Cecile, which leads to him once again demanding the immediate fulfillment of her promise. The Marquise refuses, and they declare war.

The Marquise reveals to Danceny that Valmont had seduced Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel. Guilty and despairing, Valmont allows Danceny to fatally wound him. Before he dies, he asks Danceny to visit Tourvel and assure her of his true love; Valmont also hands him a collection of letters from Merteuil that detail her scheming. After hearing Valmont's message from Danceny, Madame de Tourvel dies. Danceny publishes Merteuil's letters, which become a scandal, and she is booed and disgraced by the audience at the opera. The movie closes as she suffers a breakdown while removing her make-up.


  • Glenn Close as Marquise de Merteuil
  • John Malkovich as Vicomte de Valmont
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel
  • Uma Thurman as Cécile de Volanges
  • Swoosie Kurtz as Madame de Volanges, mother of Cécile and cousin to Merteuil
  • Keanu Reeves as Le Chevalier Raphael Danceny, courtier to Cécile.
  • Mildred Natwick as Madame de Rosemonde, Valmont's aunt
  • Peter Capaldi as Azolan, Valmont's valet
  • Valerie Gogan as Julie, Madame de Tourvel's chambermaid
  • Laura Benson as Émilie, a courtesan
  • Joe Sheridan as Georges, Madame de Tourvel's footman
  • Joanna Pavlis as Adèle, Madame de Rosemonde's maid
  • Harry Jones as Monsieur Armand
  • François Montagut as Belleroche, Merteuil's lover


Dangerous Liaisons was the first English-language film adaptation of Laclos's novel, and was based on Christopher Hampton's Olivier Award-winning and Tony Award-nominated theatrical adaptation for the Royal Shakespeare Company,[4] directed by Howard Davies and featuring Lindsay Duncan, Alan Rickman and Juliet Stevenson.

The film was shot entirely on location in France, specifically in the region Île-de-France, and featured historical buildings such as the Château de Vincennes in Val-de-Marne, the Château de Champs-sur-Marne, the Château de Guermantes in Seine-et-Marne, the Château du Saussay in Essonne, and the Théâtre Montansier in Versailles.[5]

This was the final film appearance of Academy Award- and Tony Award-nominated actress Mildred Natwick, who played the role of Madame de Rosemonde.[6]

Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role of Cécile, and Sarah Jessica Parker turned it down, before it went to Uma Thurman.[6]


The score of Dangerous Liaisons was written by the British film music composer George Fenton. The soundtrack also includes works by a number of baroque and classical composers, reflecting the story's 18th-Century-French setting; pieces by Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and Christoph Willibald Gluck feature prominently, although no French composers are included.[7]

Track Song Title Composer
1 Dangerous Liaisons Main Title/"Dressing" George Fenton
2 "Madame De Tourvel" George Fenton
3 "The Challenge" George Fenton
4 "O Malheureuse Iphigénie!", from Iphigénie en Tauride Christoph Willibald Gluck
5 "Going Hunting" – "Allegro" from Organ Concerto No. 13, "The Cuckoo and the Nightingale" George Frideric Handel, arr.George Fenton
6 "Valmont's First Move"/"The Staircase" George Fenton
7 "Beneath The Surface" George Fenton
8 "The Set Up" George Fenton
9 "The Key" George Fenton
10 "Her Eyes Are Closing" George Fenton
11 "Ombra mai fu", from Serse George Frideric Handel
12 "Tourvel's Flight" George Fenton
13 "Success" George Fenton
14 "Emilie" George Fenton
15 "Beyond My Control" George Fenton
16 "A Final Request" George Fenton
17 "Ombra Mai Fu" reprise/"The Mirror" George Frideric Handel/George Fenton
18 Dangerous Liaisons End Credits George Fenton
19 "Allegro" from Concerto in a Minor For Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065 Johann Sebastian Bach


Dangerous Liaisons holds a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes,[8] and a score of 74 on Metacritic,[9] indicating a positive critical reception.

Pauline Kael in The New Yorker described it as "heaven – alive in a way that movies rarely are."[9] Hal Hinson in the Washington Post wrote that the film's "wit and immediacy is extraordinarily rare in a period film. Instead of making the action seem far off, the filmmakers put the audience in the room with their characters."[10] Roger Ebert called it "an absorbing and seductive movie."[11] Variety considered it an "incisive study of sex as an arena for manipulative power games."[12] Vincent Canby in The New York Times hailed it as a "kind of lethal drawing-room comedy."[13]

Christopher Hampton received critical acclaim for his screenplay, with Time Out writing that "one of the film's enormous strengths is scriptwriter Christopher Hampton's decision to go back to the novel, and save only the best from his play."[14] James Acheson and Stuart Craig were also praised for their work, with Sheila Benson of the Los Angeles Times stating that "the film's details of costuming (by The Last Emperor's James Acheson) and production design (by Stuart Craig of Gandhi and The Mission) are ravishing."[9] All three would go on to win Academy Awards for their work on this film.

Glenn Close received considerable praise for her performance; she was lauded by The New York Times for her "richness and comic delicacy,"[13] while Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that, once she "finally lets loose and gives way to complete animal despair, Close is horrifying."[9] Roger Ebert thought the two lead roles were "played to perfection by Close and Malkovich... their arch dialogues together turn into exhausting conversational games, tennis matches of the soul."[11]

Michelle Pfeiffer was also widely acclaimed for her portrayal, despite playing, in the opinion of the Washington Post, "the least obvious and the most difficult" role. "Nothing is harder to play than virtue, and Pfeiffer is smart enough not to try. Instead, she embodies it."[10] The New York Times called her performance a "happy surprise."[13] Roger Ebert, considering the trajectory of her career, wrote that "in a year that has seen her in varied assignments such as Married to the Mob and Tequila Sunrise, the movie is more evidence of her versatility. She is good when she is innocent and superb when she is guilty."[11] Pfeiffer would later win a British Academy Film Award for her performance.

The casting of John Malkovich proved to be a controversial decision that divided critics. The New York Times, while admitting there was the "shock of seeing him in powdered wigs", concluded that he was "unexpectedly fine. The intelligence and strength of the actor shape the audience's response to him."[13] The Washington Post was similarly impressed with Malkovich's performance: "There's a sublime perversity in Frears' casting, especially that of Malkovich... [he] brings a fascinating dimension to his character that would be missing with a more conventionally handsome leading man."[10] Variety was less impressed, stating that while the "sly actor conveys the character's snaky, premeditated Don Juanism... he lacks the devilish charm and seductiveness one senses Valmont would need to carry off all his conquests."[12]

Awards and nominations[edit]

At the 61st Academy Awards, Dangerous Liaisons won three Oscars out of seven nominations, for Best Adapted Screenplay (Christopher Hampton), Best Costume Design (James Acheson), and Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig and Gérard James). Its four unsuccessful nominations were for Best Actress (Glenn Close), Best Supporting Actress (Michelle Pfeiffer), Best Original Score (George Fenton), and the Academy Award for Best Picture.[3] Director Stephen Frears and lead actor John Malkovich were not nominated.

At the 43rd British Academy Film Awards, Michelle Pfeiffer won for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, and Christopher Hampton won for Best Screenplay. The film received a further eight nominations, in the categories of Best Direction (Stephen Frears), Best Actress in a Leading Role (Close), Best Cinematography (Philippe Rousselot), Best Costume Design (Acheson), Best Original Film Score (Fenton), Best Editing (Mick Audsley), Best Make Up Artist (Jean-Luc Russier) and Best Production Design (Craig).[3]

In addition to his Oscar and BAFTA awards, Christopher Hampton also won the London Film Critics' Circle Award for Screenwriter of the Year, and the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium.[3]

Stephen Frears won the César Award for Best Foreign Film[3] and Best Director from the Boston Society of Film Critics. The film was second only to Mississippi Burning in the National Board of Review's Top 10 films.

Philippe Rousselot was nominated for both the American Society of Cinematographers Award and the British Society of Cinematographers Award.[3]

Awarding body Award Nominee Result
Academy Awards Best Picture Norma Heyman
Hank Moonjean
Best Actress Glenn Close Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Michelle Pfeiffer Nominated
Best Adapted Screenplay Christopher Hampton Won
Best Original Score George Fenton Nominated
Best Costume Design James Acheson Won
Best Art Direction Stuart Craig
Gérard James
American Society of Cinematographers Outstanding Achievement in Cinematography Philippe Rousselot Nominated
BAFTA Awards Best Direction Stephen Frears Nominated
Best Actress in a Leading Role Glenn Close Nominated
Best Actress in a Supporting Role Michelle Pfeiffer Won
Best Screenplay Christopher Hampton Won
Best Cinematography Philippe Rousselot Nominated
Best Original Film Score George Fenton Nominated
Best Costume Design James Acheson Nominated
Best Make Up Artist Jean-Luc Russier Nominated
Best Editing Mick Audsley Nominated
Best Production Design Stuart Craig Nominated
British Society of Cinematographers Best Cinematography Philippe Rousselot Nominated
César Awards Best Foreign Film Stephen Frears Won
London Critics Circle Screenwriter of the Year Christopher Hampton Won
Writers Guild of America Best Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium Christopher Hampton Won

Related adaptations[edit]

Three decades before Dangerous Liaisons, Roger Vadim adapted the Laclos novel into Les Liaisons dangereuses, a French film starring Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Philipe and Annette Vadim. Less than a year after Dangerous Liaisons was released, Miloš Forman adapted the novel into Valmont, starring Colin Firth in the title role, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly.

In 1999, Roger Kumble adapted the novel into Cruel Intentions, a drama involving Prep School students in New York, starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon as well as a cameo from Dangerous Liaisons cast member Swoosie Kurtz. In 2003, Untold Scandal, a South Korean adaptation, was released; it was set in the same time as the original novel, but in the Kingdom of Joseon. In 2012, a Chinese adaptation, "Dangerous Liaisons (危險關係)," was released, directed by Hur Jin-ho, a Korean director, and starring Zhang Ziyi.

Almost 25 years after he played Valmont, John Malkovich directed a French-language version of Christopher Hampton's play in Paris, which ran at the Théâtre de l'Atelier.[15][16] In December 2012, the production is being brought to Lansburgh Theatre by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for a limited run in Washington D.C.[17]


  1. ^ "Stephen Frears". theauteurs.com. Retrieved 2009-11-09. 
  2. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". oscars.org. Retrieved 2011-07-31. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) - Awards". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  4. ^ "Olivier Winners 1986 – The Official London Theatre Guide". officiallondontheatre.co.uk. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  5. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – Filming locations". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  6. ^ a b "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – Trivia". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  7. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons (1988) – Soundtracks". imdb.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  8. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons Movie Reviews, Pictures". rottentomatoes.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  9. ^ a b c d "Dangerous Liaisons reviews at Metacritic.com". metacritic.com. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  10. ^ a b c Hinson, Hal (January 13, 1989). "'Dangerous Liaisons'". washingtonpost.com. 
  11. ^ a b c Ebert, Roger (January 13, 1989). "Dangerous Liaisons :: rogerebert.com :: Reviews". rogerebert.suntimes.com. 
  12. ^ a b "Dangerous Liaisons Review". variety.com. 1988-01-01. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  13. ^ a b c d Canby, Vincent (December 21, 1988). "Passion in the Ancien Régime". The New York Times. 
  14. ^ "Dangerous Liaisons". Time Out London. Retrieved 2009-11-08. 
  15. ^ "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" (in French). Théâtre de l'Atelier. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  16. ^ Trueman, Matt (3 February 2012). "John Malkovich directs Dangerous Liaisons on stage". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 
  17. ^ Jones, Kenneth (November 6, 2012). "John Malkovich's French-Language Staging of Les Liaisons Dangereuses Will Dawn in DC in December". Playbill. Retrieved 2012-11-12. 

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