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Dangerous Liaisons 'is full of . . . sex and jokes and rich people behaving badly'


December 21, 1988

Let's not say that Dangerous Liaisons, which opens today in Toronto, has a bizarre creative provenance. Let's just say that having Stephen Frears and John Malkovich doing a costume drama in the aristocratic France of the 1780s is a little like putting the demolition-derby people in charge of road-testing at Rolls-Royce.

The notion amuses Frears, who is best known in Canada for the scabby view of today's British underclass that he gleefully evoked in such films as My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The priapic wanderings of Joe Orton, the ultimate subversive, were the subject of another film, Prick Up Your Ears.

But he doesn't think that Choderlos de Laclos' famous, decadent novel is far from his own sensibility. "The script is full of everything I love: sex and jokes and rich people behaving badly."

Frears, who is a scathing opponent of the elitism of Margaret Thatcher's government, also feels that the story told in Laclos' novel was about an elite so corrupt "that it's really a revolutionary novel. At least, when you read it you know there had to be a revolution."

It is about a certain Marquise de Merteuil, intelligent and ruthless, who gets an old lover to seduce a 15-year-old girl. Why? Because Merteuil's current lover has dumped her for the girl, saying he prefers to marry a virgin. Merteuil means to destroy the girl's innocence en route to her revenge.

Glenn Close plays Merteuil; Malkovich plays the seducer, Vicomte de Valmont.

The play on which the film is based has run for more than 800 performances in London, and is still running. But there it is played by the classically impeccable actors of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Frears, and his imp of perversity, didn't let a British actor get anywhere near the set of his film. And the U.S. actors he chose - Close, Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer - are not exactly at home in the classics. We won't even talkabout Swoosie Kurtz, who plays the mother of the young virgin.

Asked about this, Frears gets serious in a hurry. "Why Americans? Because it's nota costume drama. It's about real people. I was afraid that, with British actors, it wouldturn into a costume drama. This story is not about a bunch of elegant people saying, 'Pish.' And I'm very happy with the way it worked out."

The choice is not surprising when you consider that Frears, who began filmmaking in the late sixties, was always part of an incendiary generation that had little use for the Masterpiece Theatre image of Britain that was projected in North America. One of his favorite ironies in Sammy and Rosie is that he does put a "decent," older, upper-class woman into it (played by Claire Bloom) and she proves to be feckless in her personal choices. "Ironically, in England it's the people like me who defend tolerance now," Frears says. "We were the lucky post-war generation. We worked for an equal and open society. It was a kinder time."

All that, he darkly adds, has "fallen out of fashion."

Frears is asked whether he is not, in fact, a closet romantic, secretly longing for something brighter than the ghastly death's-head societies of Brixton or the corrupt French aristocracy. "I'm not a closet romantic at all," he exclaims indignantly. "It's right out in the open!" And Dangerous Liaisons is "romantic as well as being black and cynical. Laclos was a bourgeois, after all. He didn't write it for bohemian reasons. You have to be a bourgeois to write a novel like that."

The suggestion that Frears is a closet romantic has come, with a wicked grin, from John Malkovich.

Malkovich is a stage actor who grew up in the rude and rowdy tradition of Chicago's Steppenwolf company, and then went to New York, bringing his visceral, angry persona with him. Last year, he gave unintended weight to the title of Lanford Wilson's Broadway hit, Burn This, with a performance that nearly did incinerate everybody in sight. Although widely praised for it, he was chastised by The New York Times for being egocentric and undisciplined.

His half-dozen films have not projected him into the cinematic pantheon the way those of Glenn Close, a fellow Broadway actor, have succeeded in doing for her. Some of his films were forgettable (Eleni, Miles From Home) or excessively virtuous (The Glass Menagerie). The Killing Fields brought him some attention, as did Places in the Heart, for which he had an Oscar nomination.

In person, he is intense to the point of sullenness. Like many U.S. actors, he sees his art in priestly terms, with ideas of truth, honesty and a ruthless stripping away of affectation coming close to being a form of affectation in themselves. Lest, for example, anybody mistake him for a soft film actor, he will answer a question about the literate dialogue in Dangerous Liaisons by saying: "Yes, well, it's true the vast majority of film dialogue isf---you, eat me, let's go chase a car."

But moments later, lest you now mistake him for an unlettered lout, he goes on to discuss his character Valmont with a quote from the historian Thomas Carlyle. "Carlyle said, 'There is a dark spot following us.' All men have Valmont in them, even if just in their imagination."

In the story, Valmont is a man who is irresistible to women, but also exceedingly cruel and amoral in using and dismissing them. In the story, he has decided to amuse himself by seducing a religious married woman, so as to make her hate herself. He succeeds, but finds to his shock and horror that she loves him, and he has fallen in love with her.

Malkovich talks about Valmont in psychoanalytic terms. "He doesn't believe he can inspire love in others. When he finds he can, he is destroyed. It goes against the thing he has believed for his whole life. It destroys his self-image. He lacks courage."

Asked whether this isn't a sympathetic view of an odious man, he replies that "it's not really a sympathetic view of the character. It's just what the arc of the character actually is. We meet him at the top of what he considers to be his game. He has nowhere to go but down."

He has nothing but admiration for Christopher Hampton, the English playwright who did both the stage and film versions of the story. In fact, the screenplay is an edited version of the stage play, with the addition of several letters from the 1782 novel itself, read as voice-overs. Hampton and Frears worked carefully together.

"Stephen knew what had to be done to make it work as a film," Malkovich says. "If you take away thisthread instead of thatthread, the whole thing might unravel. It was very skilfully done."

And this is the point at which Malkovich, the glowering method actor, is asked what he really thinks of Frears, the filmmaker of the greedy and sex-ridden British underclass. "Oh," Malkovich says, stretching out as if in pleasant good company, artistically speaking, "he's a closet romantic, you know, like all the English. He secretly loves all this stuff."

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