Dangerous Liaisons

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Dangerous Liaisons
Theatrical release poster
Directed byStephen Frears
Screenplay byChristopher Hampton
Based onLes liaisons dangereuses
by Christopher Hampton
Produced by
CinematographyPhilippe Rousselot
Edited byMick Audsley
Music byGeorge Fenton
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • December 16, 1988 (1988-12-16) (United States)
Running time
119 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$14 million
Box office$34.7 million

Dangerous Liaisons is a 1988 American period romantic drama film directed by Stephen Frears from a screenplay by Christopher Hampton, based on his 1985 play Les liaisons dangereuses, itself adapted from the 1782 French novel of the same name by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.[1] It stars Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Swoosie Kurtz, Mildred Natwick, Peter Capaldi and Keanu Reeves.

Dangerous Liaisons was theatrically released by Warner Bros. Pictures on December 16, 1988. The film received generally positive reviews from critics, with praise for Close's and Pfeiffer's performances and the screenplay, production values and costumes. Grossing $34.7 million against its $14 million budget, it was a modest box office success. It received seven nominations at the 61st Academy Awards, including for the Best Picture and won three; Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Costume Design, and Best Production Design.[2][3]


In pre-Revolution Paris, the Marquise de Merteuil plots revenge against her ex-lover, the Comte de Bastide, who recently ended their relationship. To soothe her wounded pride and embarrass Bastide, she seeks to arrange the seduction and disgrace of his young virgin fiancée, Cécile de Volanges, who has only recently been presented to society after spending her formative years in the shelter of a convent.

Merteuil calls on the similarly unprincipled Vicomte de Valmont to do the deed. Valmont declines, as he is plotting to seduce Madame de Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament away in Burgundy and a current houseguest of Valmont's aunt, Madame de Rosemonde. Amused and incredulous at Valmont's hubris in pursuing the chaste, devoutly religious Tourvel, Merteuil ups the ante: if Valmont somehow succeeds in seducing Tourvel and can furnish written proof, Merteuil will sleep with him as well. Never one to refuse a challenge, Valmont accepts.

Tourvel rebuffs all of Valmont's advances. Searching for leverage, he instructs his page Azolan to seduce Tourvel's maid Julie and gain access to Tourvel's private correspondence. One of the letters intercepted is from Cécile's mother and Merteuil's cousin, Madame de Volanges, warning Tourvel that Valmont is a nefarious and untrustworthy individual. Valmont resolves to seduce Cécile as revenge for her mother's accurate denunciation of him.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Cécile meets the charming and handsome Chevalier Raphael Danceny, who becomes her music teacher. They fall in love with coaxing from Merteuil, who knows that Danceny, a poor commoner, can never qualify as a bona fide suitor.

Valmont gains access to Cécile's bedchamber on a pretense, sexually assaults her, and blackmails her into sex as she pleads with him to leave. On the pretext of illness, Cécile remains locked in her chambers, refusing all visitors. A concerned Madame de Volanges asks Merteuil to speak to Cécile; Cécile confides in Merteuil, naively assuming that she has Cécile's best interests at heart. Merteuil advises Cécile to welcome Valmont's advances; she says young women should take advantage of all the lovers they can acquire in a society so repressive and contemptuous of women. The result is a "student-teacher" relationship; by day, Cécile is courted by Danceny, and each night she receives a sexual "lesson" from Valmont. In the meantime, Merteuil begins an affair with Danceny.

Meanwhile, Valmont somehow manages to win Tourvel's heart, but at a cost: the lifelong bachelor playboy falls in love. In a fit of jealousy, Merteuil mocks Valmont and threatens to trash his reputation as a carefree gigolo. She also refuses to honor her end of their agreement since Valmont has no written proof that the relationship has been consummated. Valmont abruptly dismisses Tourvel with a terse excuse: "It is beyond my control." Meanwhile, after a night in Valmont's bed, Cécile miscarries his child.

Overwhelmed with grief and shame, Tourvel retreats to a monastery where her health deteriorates rapidly. Valmont warns Danceny of Merteuil's ulterior motives in seducing him; she retaliates by informing Danceny that Valmont has been sleeping with Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel and mortally wounds him. With his dying breath, Valmont asks Danceny to communicate to Tourvel—by now near death—his true feelings for her. He also gives Danceny his collection of intimate letters from Merteuil, and Danceny publishes them, while Cécile informs her mother of her intention to return permanently to the convent. All of Paris learns the full range of Merteuil's schemes and depredations. Booed and humiliated at the opéra by her former friends and sycophants, Merteuil flees in disgrace.


  • Glenn Close as Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil
  • John Malkovich as Vicomte Sébastien de Valmont
  • Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame Marie 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. The screenplay 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 the Île-de-France region of northern 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]

Liaisons was the final film appearance of Academy Award and Tony Award-nominated actress Mildred Natwick.[6][unreliable source?] Drew Barrymore auditioned for the role of Cécile, and Sarah Jessica Parker turned it down before it was offered to Thurman.[6] Annette Bening went through several auditions for the role of the courtesan Émilie, but in the end the role went to Laura Benson.[7] Bening would go on to play the role of the Marquise de Merteuil in Milos Forman's adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Valmont, a year later.

During production Malkovich had an affair with Pfeiffer. His six-year marriage to actress Glenne Headly ended shortly thereafter.[8][9][10]


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.[11] The soundtrack was mastered by Greg Fulginiti.

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


Critical response[edit]

Dangerous Liaisons holds a score of 93% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews.[12] On Metacritic it has a score of 74 based on 17 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[13] Audiences surveyed by CinemaScore gave the film a grade B+ on scale of A to F.[14]

Pauline Kael in The New Yorker described it as "heaven – alive in a way that movies rarely are."[13] 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."[15] Roger Ebert called it "an absorbing and seductive movie, but not compelling."[16] Variety considered it an "incisive study of sex as an arena for manipulative power games."[17] Vincent Canby in The New York Times hailed it as a "kind of lethal drawing-room comedy."[18]

The Time Out reviewer wrote of Christopher Hampton's screenplay 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".[19] 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".[20] 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,"[18] 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."[13] 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."[16]

Michelle Pfeiffer was 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."[15] The New York Times called her performance a "happy surprise."[18] 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."[16] 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".[18] 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."[15] 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".[17]

Uma Thurman gained recognition from critics and audiences;[21][22] film critic Roger Ebert found her to be "well cast" in her "tricky" key role.[23] At the time, insecure about her appearance, she spent roughly a year in London, during which she often wore loose, baggy clothing.[24] Malkovich said of her, "There is nothing twitchy teenager-ish about her, I haven't met anyone like her at that age. Her intelligence and poise stand out. But there's something else. She's more than a little haunted."[25]


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 Art Direction Stuart Craig
Gérard James
Best Costume Design James Acheson Won
Best Original Score George Fenton Nominated
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]

Almost 25 years after he played Valmont, John Malkovich directed a French-language version of Hampton's play in Paris, which ran at the Théâtre de l'Atelier.[26][27] In December 2012, the production was brought to Lansburgh Theatre by the Shakespeare Theatre Company for a limited run in Washington, D.C.[28]

In 1999, the film Cruel Intentions set the same story in present-day America.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders parodied Dangerous Liaisons on their sketch show French & Saunders, which then inspired their 1999 comedy series Let Them Eat Cake.


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