Dangerous Liaisons (1988): Stephen Frears’ Oscar-Winning Version of Christopher Hampton’s Play, Starring Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer

Emotional cruelty, which goes way beyond sexual manipulation, is the rule of the game of Christopher Hampton’s award-winning scenario in this lavish and prestige production, directed by Stephen Frears.

Hampton’s play was done under the title “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” with great success in both London and New York.

Grade: B+ (***1/2* out of *****)


Theatrical release poster

Set in eighteenth-century France, Hampton’s play, itself an adaptation of the noted and notorious Choderlos de Laclos, is based on a single but functional premise, which can only that far in engaging viewers attention for two hours.

The aristocratic Close challenges her peer and former lover Malkovich to seduce the virtuous Michelle Feiffer. This premise gets some entertaining permutations, barely sufficient to hold our attention for the film’s duration.

Stephen Frears’s smoothly assured direction punches the witty lines in Hampton’s adaptation to the big screen, and a fabulous, all-American cast, headed by Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mildred Natwick, Swoosie Kurtz, and the very young Uma Thurman, doesn’t miss a single cue in its delivery.

Narrative Premise:

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 years in the shelter of a convent.

Narrative Conclusion:

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 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.

The movie was absorbing in its moments of wit, and was effectively seductively, but overall was not compelling.  While the filmmakers have tried to make the tale more immediate, by making references to other historical eras (such as the present), they could not conceal the emotional hollowness at its center, and the stiffly predictable behaviors beneath the gorgeously- groomed characters.

Critically acclaimed, the film was nonetheless only a moderate commercial success, earning $34.7 million at the box-office against a budget of $14 million (excluding marketing and publicity).

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by Norma Heyman and Hank Moonjean
Actress: Glenn Close
Supporting Actress: Michelle Pfeiffer
Screenplay (Adapted): Christopher Hampton
Art Direction-Set Decoration: Stuart Craig; Gerard James
Costume Design: James Acheson
Original Score: George Fenton

Awards: 3

Screenplay (Adapted)
Art Direction-Set Decoration
Costume Design

Oscar Context

In one of Oscar’s biggest snubs, Frears failed to receive Best Director nomination from his colleagues at the Academy’s Directors Branch. Frears’ s “place” was taken either my Brit Charles Crichton (“A Fish Called Wanda”) and/or Scorsese (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), since neither “Fish” nor “Christ” landed a spot among the Best Picture nominees, which in 1988 included: “The Accidental Tourist,” Mississippi Burning,” “Rain Man,” which swept most of the Oscars, and the comedy “Working Girl.”

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, suitor 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


Directed by Stephen Frears
Screenplay by Christopher Hampton, Based on Les liaisons dangereuses 1987 play by Christopher Hampton
Produced by Norma Heyman, Hank Moonjean
Cinematography Philippe Rousselot
Edited by Mick Audsley
Music by George Fenton
Production companies: Lorimar Film Entertainment, NFH Limited
Distributed by Warner
Release date: December 16, 1988 (US)
Running time 119 minutes
Budget $14 million
Box office $34.7 million