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Literature / Dangerous Liaisons

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Les Liaisons dangereuses is an 18th century Epistolary Novel by French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.

It was adapted as a stage play in 1985, with its French name, then as a film in 1988, named Dangerous Liaisons, then the very next year as Valmont, and updated in 1999 to a modern high school as Cruel Intentions. In 2003, another modern-dress (late 1950's/early 1960's) adaptation was filmed as a miniseries for French TV, starring Catherine Deneuve and Leelee Sobieski. In 2018, a South Korean adaptation called Tempted also aired, starring Joy (from one of the country's biggest musical acts, Red Velvet) and Woo Do-hwan.

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 French high society.


Tropes used in Dangerous Liaisons:

  • Alliterative Name: The main characters are:
    • 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".
  • 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.
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  • Byronic Hero: Tourvel and Volanges certainly consider Valmont to be this.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 ends 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 Daceny, 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." Taken Up to Eleven in his best letter, written in bed, on another lover's bare back, and composed in its entirety of sentences alluding to that fact.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Idle Rich: Virtually all of the cast. Valmont is astonished at the seemingly paltry 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.
  • The Ingenue: Cecile. So very much.
  • 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.
  • Literary Agent Hypothesis: 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)
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 on the planning and implementation of a seduction.
  • Private Tutor: Danceny teaches music to Cecile.
  • Stepford Smiler: Catherine/de Merteuil is very much type C. She invested a great deal of hard work to become so.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Les Liaisons Dangereuses


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