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Literature / Dangerous Liaisons

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Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is a seminal Epistolary Novel written by French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782.

The story follows wealthy aristocrats engaged in a malicious bet involving sexual conquests, revenge, manipulation, seduction, and love in the sophisticated, and decadent atmosphere of 18th century pre-Revolutionary French high society.

It was adapted as an English language stage play by Christopher Hampton in 1985 with its French title. The most well known adaptation (which is also based on the 1985 play) is without much doubt the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Uma Thurman, Swoosie Kurtz and Keanu Reeves. Another film adaptation, Valmont, starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening, and Meg Tilly, came out not long after.

It was updated in 1999 to a modern high school as Cruel Intentions. In 2003, another modern-dress (actually late 1950s/early 1960s) adaptation was filmed as a miniseries for French TV, starring Catherine Deneuve, Leelee Sobieski, Nastassja Kinski and Rupert Everett. In the same year, a Korean movie adaptation, Untold Scandal, transferred the plot, remarkably faithfully, to 18th century Korea. In 2018, a South Korean modern-day adaptation called Tempted also aired, starring Joy (from one of the country's biggest musical acts, Red Velvet) and Woo Do-hwan.

In 2022, a Prequel Series with the same title, Dangerous Liaisons started airing on -Starz, but was cancelled by the network after only one season.

Tropes used in Dangerous Liaisons:

  • Alliterative Name: The main characters are:
    • The Vicomte de Valmont.
    • The Marquise de Merteuil.
  • All Women Are Prudes: Zig-zagged- it's implied that all the "virtuous" women are at best indifferent, but Tourvel is something of a grey area.
  • Ambiguously Bi: Cecile and Merteuil have shades of this, thanks to undertones put by the author in some Letters such as the 20th and 63rd.
  • Arranged Marriage: Cecile's mother has one planned for her.
  • The Bet: The linchpin of the plot. Valmont and Merteuil hatch a bet that he will be able to seduce Tourvel; if he wins (with written proof) Merteuil will spend the night with him.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: Merteuil. At one point in the play when she's comforting Cecile and has her arms around her, the stage direction describes her as looking "bored and impatient".
  • Blackmail: Valmont instructs his page Azolan to seduce Tourvel's maid Julie and gain access to Tourvel's private correspondence.
  • Break the Haughty: Merteuil in the end. Valmont ensures from beyond the grave that her reputation is utterly wrecked, causing her to have to leave Paris in disgrace, and in the book she also contracts smallpox, destroying her beauty.
  • Byronic Hero: Tourvel and Volanges certainly consider Valmont to be this.
  • Church Lady: Madame de Tourvel soberly moves through every step of Sunday services and relies on Christian texts for comfort. Her "strict morals, religious fervor, and the happiness of her marriage" are why Valmont finds the idea of seducing her so intriguing.
  • Convenient Miscarriage: Cecile, of a child conceived by Valmont.
  • Corrupt the Cutie: Merteuil explicitly asks Valmont to do this to Cecile in an effort to humiliate the girl's arranged husband, who is one of Merteuil's ex-lovers. Valmont initially rejects the request because it would be too easy for him.
    What do you propose to me? To seduce a young girl, who has seen nothing, knows nothing, and would in a manner give herself up without making the least defence, intoxicated with the first homage paid to her charms, and perhaps incited rather by curiosity than love; there twenty others may be as successful as I.
  • Costume Porn/Gorgeous Period Dress: Unsurprisingly, the film won an Academy Award for Best Costume Design.
  • Death by Despair: Tourvel, already wretched from Valmont's rejection, goes into a downward spiral when she hears of his death.
  • Death Equals Redemption: It's only as he's dying that Valmont does something good.
  • Death Wail: Merteuil, in the film, when she learns Valmont has been killed in a duel.
  • Direct Line to the Author: Laclos uses the framing device that he discovered the journals and is publishing them, and comments on how Moral Guardians likely object but he is publishing them for a moral purpose (namely that people like Valmont and Merteuil are bad and others should avoid being taken in by someone like them)
  • Double Standard: The novel makes much of the inherent unfairness in the way women's and men's reputations are affected by sexual rumors.
  • Downer Ending: Valmont and de Tourvel are dead, Cecile's so broken by all the manipulation she decides to become a nun, and Merteuil is (in the film and book) publicly disgraced and (also in the book) facially disfigured from smallpox. She's gotten so engaging, if not actually likeable, that it can be hard to witness her downfall. In the play, she gets off practically scot-free but is emotionally broken by the idea that Valmont loved someone other than her, and of course — as the threatening shadow of the guillotine on the wall at the very end reminds us — the French Revolution is on the way...
  • Duel of Seduction: A sexually charged conversation between Valmont and Merteuil has the viewer waiting desperately for one of them to jump the other.
  • Duel to the Death: Between Valmont and Danceny, which Valmont loses.
  • Enemy Mine: Despite hating Danceny, Valmont's aunt is willing to work with him to make sure that the scandal is quietly buried.
  • Epistolary Novel: Though the film has the characters meeting and discussing things they write in the book, it still retains a lot of letter writing. Often with original substitutes for a desk.
  • Exact Words: Valmont is very fond of those, finding pleasure and amusement in his own duplicity, like when he tells Tourvel she "would think less of him if she knew his motives." His best letter was written in bed, on another lover's bare back, and composed in its entirety of sentences alluding to that fact.
  • Fanservice:
    • Valmont kissing Merteuil's bosom.
    • Tourvel's maid Julie lying topless in the bedchambers as she is caught with Azolan.
    • Valmont's lover nude in his bed while he writes Tourvel.
    • Cecile topless as she has sex with Valmont.
    • Valmont and Tourvel's lovemaking following their love confession.
  • Fan Disservice: Valmont climbing into Cecile's bedchambers, sexually assaulting her and then blackmailing her into sex.
  • High-Class Call Girl: Emilie the courtesan. Valmont describes her as, essentially, a Hooker with a Heart of Gold.
  • Hollywood Tone-Deaf: Cecile makes some particularly painful attempts to hit the right notes during her music lesson with Danceny.
  • Idle Rich: Virtually all of the cast. Valmont is astonished at the seemingly paltry quantity of money he pays to save a poor family from ruin (to look good in Tourvel's eyes, naturally) and that such families are not uncommon.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness:
    • Merteuil fakes this extremely well, pretty much out of necessity. (Keeping up a not just good but absolutely unassailable reputation is the only way to ensure that anyone spreading rumors about what she's really up to won't be believed.)
    • Everyone believes Tourvel is an example of this. Valmont's mission throughout the story is to see that this is ultimately averted, and he succeeds.
  • The Ingenue: Cecile. So very much. Valmont deconstructs the trope in his first mention of her, implying that her deliberately sheltered education will lead to something closer to the Catholic School Girls Rule; see the quote under Corrupt the Cutie above.
  • Ironic Echo: After succeeding in sleeping with Madame de Tourvel, Valmont says that his infatuation with her is temporarily "beyond his control." This is the same phrase Merteuil uses when telling her I Have This Friend story, which ultimately leads to his dumping Tourvel and his doom.
  • Ladykiller in Love: Valmont, though he is so jaded he doesn't notice he is in love until it's pointed out to him.
  • Lipstick-and-Load Montage: The opening credits to the film has a montage featuring both the main male and female characters. It looks like they are dressing for battle, and they were.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Valmont but especially Merteuil, the Trope Codifier for Manipulative Bitch. A proto-feminist letter argues that there was no other way for a woman to get ahead and live the life she wanted in the 18th century. In Cruel Intentions, Kathryn argues that she cannot enjoy sex and be considered 'nice' and that this double standard drives her manipulations. However, this argument is much weaker in Cruel Intentions.
  • Manly Tears: Our first glimpse of Danceny in the film is after a beautiful performance at the opera sends these streaming down his face. He will later have more when he believes Cecile's mother may separate the two.
  • The Masochism Tango: Valmont and Merteuil take this to its logical extreme with Valmont's death as a direct result of Merteuil's manipulation of Danceny, shortly followed by Merteuil's humiliation by Valmont's manipulation of Danceny.
  • Meaningful Name: The name Cécile comes from the latin caecus, which means blind - specifically, blinded by inexperience, oversheltering and manipulation.
  • More Experienced Chases the Innocent: The Casanova Valmont tries to seduce Church Lady Tourvel as part of The Bet.
  • My Eyes Are Up Here: In one of the first scenes of the movie, when Valmont meets Cecile. Whenever he isn't talking, he's very openly staring at Cecile's chest. Needless to say, it makes her mother uncomfortable.
  • My Beloved Smother: Madame de Volanges, to Cecile.
  • Nature Adores a Virgin: Played straight with Madame de Tourvel, inverted with Cecile.
  • Not Himself: Both Valmont and Merteuil are shocked by his genuine emotional connection to Tourvel.
  • "Not If They Enjoyed It" Rationalization: Used by Merteuil on Cecile with extreme cruelty when the despairing girl writes to her for help. Earlier, the marquise writes to Valmont claiming that women welcome sexual violence, as it gives them an excuse in a world where they can't freely succumb to desire.
  • No Pregger Sex: Averted. Neither Valmont nor Cecile knew she was pregnant until she miscarried right after having sex with Valmont.
  • Pimped-Out Dress: In the film, the standard attire for a female character includes an Impossibly-Low Neckline and an impossibly large bustle.
  • The Pornomancer: Averted; the characters spend quite a lot of time planning and implementing a seduction.
  • Private Tutor: Danceny teaches music to Cecile.
  • The Queen's Latin: Toyed with. All the aristocracy speak with American accents. But all the lower class speak with British accents.
  • Setting Update: Besides Cruel Intentions, one miniseries sets the story in 1960s France. A Chinese adaptation released in 2012 sets the story in 1930s Shanghai. The South Korean film Untold Scandal transplants the story from 18th Century France to 18th Century Korea, while the Korean drama Tempted sets it in modern-day Seoul.
  • Sidekick: Azolan, Valmont's valet. Those watching the film may retroactively recognize him as 12th Doctor Peter Capaldi.
  • Signature Line:
    From then on, her soul was written on her face.
    • This line from the novel was almost included as an ending caption in the film. According to screenwriter Christopher Hampton, Glenn Close (Merteuil) successfully convinced him that she could act it out instead.
  • Sleeping Their Way to the Top: Valmont reminiscences about the time he had an affair with a well-connected noblewoman in exchange for her pulling strings to advance his career. He despised her (he mentions that he was tempted to tell her "Madam, I'll forget about the position I'm seeking if you'll let me leave the one I now occupy") and took immense pleasure in trashing her reputation the minute she was no longer useful to him.
  • Snow Means Death: Valmont dies against the snow in a bloody duel.
  • Stepford Smiler: Catherine/de Merteuil is very much type C. She invested a great deal of hard work to become so.
  • Suicide by Cop: Of a sort. Valmont could easily have won his duel with Danceny, but instead throws himself on Dancey's sword.
  • Taking the Veil: Cecile starts the story freshly emerged from the convent where her parents placed her to shelter her from the world, and ends it broken by tragedy and retiring to become a nun. Incidentally, challenged to seduce the virtuous convent girl, Valmont is uninterested and withering about the whole idea of a convent upbringing as a way to ensure virtue, dismissing the challenge as “too easy” (in the film’s words); she will be all too easily flattered and will likely succumb out of naive curiosity. He only agrees as a means to another end.
  • Title Drop:
    Merteuil: I have reason to believe that a dangerous liaison has sprung up between your daughter and Monsieur Danceny.
  • Villainous Breakdown: When Merteuil learns of Valmont's death.
  • Villain Protagonist: Both Valmont and Merteuil are unmistakably villainous.
  • Virginity Makes You Stupid: Cecile. Justified In-Universe as she spent most of her life in a convent. Valmont is withering about how badly that prepares a young girl for worldly seducers like himself.
  • Wham Line: The argument between Valmont and Merteuil near the climax of the film.
    Valmont: Yes or no? It's up to you, of course. I will merely confine myself to remarking that a "no" will be regarded as a declaration of war. A single word is all that's required.
    Merteuil: All right...
    Valmont: (smiles smugly)
    Merteuil: War.
  • White Shirt of Death: Valmont dies against the snow in a bloodied white shirt.
  • Woman Scorned: Merteuil is clearly in love with Valmont, and turns against him when she realises that the love is unrequited.

Alternative Title(s): Les Liaisons Dangereuses