Publicity In Films of Laclos' Epistolary Novel
I saw that to be successful one had only to join the talent of an actor to the
an author. I practiced myself in both arts and perhaps with some success; but
instead of seeking the vain applause of the theatre, I resolved to employ for my
happiness what others sacrifice to vanity. (Letter LXXXI).2
As Joy Gould Boyum argues in Double Exposure: Fiction Into Film,
media tell different stories, even if both share a common source text. "The writer
uses words; the filmmaker uses pictures. And there's no doubt about it, words and
pictures do make for very different currency" (Boyum 24). Boyum points out that,
despite the common complaint among detractors of film that images are less densely
encoded (and therefore inferior) signifiers than words, a film text is at least as
difficult to read as its literary source. Film has no fixed vocabulary or grammar,
employs a language of sounds as well as images, and complicates perceptions of
"natural" scenes by using music, lighting, costuming, cinematography, and a
variety of other mediations which draw attention to the constructedness of a movie
even as they encourage viewers to suspend disbelief and accept the film as reality.
Boyum stresses that comparing a film to the novel it is based on is in some ways like
comparing grapes to wine; the latter has undergone a transformation which, though
shaped by its source material, necessitates its evaluation as a different product.
Noting that "Hollywood has never been noted for its literacy," Boyum insists that film
critics severely limit their project if they simply seek for accuracy in plot and
characterization when comparing a film with the written text it is based on (3). A
film must be seen as a mediation and often a commodification of a novel or play, or
even a written screenplay.
Hence, I do not wish to compare the 1782 epistolary novel Les Liaisons
Dangereuses with the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons purely in terms of the
plot and characterization transformations effected by director Stephen Frears and
screenwriter Christopher Hampton on Choderlos de Laclos' text, although I am
interested in the filmmakers' decision to rewrite the novel's ending rather than
adapt the ambiguous conclusion written by Laclos. I am rather more curious about
the different stories told by the different discursive media themselves. Les
Liaisons Dangereuses -- a history told entirely in conflicting letters with no
omniscient descriptions -- produces narrative entirely through interpretations made
by the reader, who must decide which letters to accept as the "true" accounts of the
events of the fiction and which to dismiss. Dangerous Liaisons -- an historical
film constructed along a linear timeline -- leaves far less room for spectator
intervention, offering only one version of each event. Although the novel's reader
must negotiate among the words of competing versions of the story in letters, the
film's reader must negotiate between the sometimes contradictory messages of the
words and the images. The film embodies what the novel only hints at, creating an
overpresence of bodily signification which overpowers the disembodied voices in the
novel. Ironically, the multiple discourses serve to territorialize rather than diffuse
the power of the signified body, creating a competition between the surplus imagery
of the film and the surplus language of the text. If the book practices indeterminacy --
for by describing characters from several points of view, it refuses definitive
descriptions -- the film practices overdeterminacy -- for by employing the mirror rather
than the letter as its means for characters to reflect on themselves, it indicates that
bodies are transparent and readable. As the novel's collective, social voice separates
into the individual voices of the individual bodies of the characters in the film,
transforming a public discourse into a private story, the importance of gossip as a
means of obtaining reputation, publicity, and news becomes restricted. The
ungendered circulation of power made possible by disembodied forms of
communication can no longer take place, hence the public sphere which operates in
the novel ceases to function. Dangerous Liaisons is as domestic as Les
Liaisons Dangereuses is public.
You still write like a child. I see why that is; it is
because you say everything you think and nothing you do
not think. That is all very well between you and me who
have nothing to hide from each other, but with everyone
else! Above all with your lover! You will always seem like a
little fool. You can see that when you write to someone it is
for him and not for yourself; you ought then to try less to say
what you are thinking than to say what will please him
more. (Letter CV).
Cultural critic Jurgen Habermas writes that new systems of cosmopolitan
communication transformed public discourse in the waning years of Old Regime
France. Historian Joan Landes expands upon this argument by demonstrating how
a "swelling verbal and written culture" in urban centers led to the foundation of "a
new public world...an arena of strangers and acquaintances, a life passed outside of
the sphere of family and close friends." (Landes 39-40). This new social entity, which
Habermas calls the classical bourgeois public sphere, allowed cultural production
within the absolutist monarchy that nevertheless circulated oppositional ideologies
and rhetorics. Salons, opera houses, reading societies, and additional new
institutions created a space for this new public sphere. "The habit of letter writing
was another important manifestation of the new symbolic culture. In letters, men
and women explored their unique subjectivity and shared it intimately with a
sympathetic Other." The most emulated epistolarian was Mme. de Sevigne, whose
letters "ushered in a new kind of writing, one tied to personal and private history"
(Landes 62-63). Her letters, published in the early eighteenth century, were less
concerned with politics than with personal relationships, "functioning within the
nonhierarchical space established by friendship" (Altman 59-60). By Laclos' own
period, letter-writing was thus established as one of the principal means of
disseminating information through the new public sphere, outside of official politics
but operating outside the earlier bounds of family and intimate acquaintances. It
was also the primary literary form in which women participated and, besides the
salons, one of the principal vehicles for women to influence public opinion.
Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written during the final years of French
aristocratic dominance, when the rumored excesses of the aristocracy occupied a
good deal of public discourse. Published in Paris only seven years before the
revolution, the scandalous novel -- which purported to be not a work of fiction, but a
collection of letters actually circulated concerning true events -- sold out in only a few
days. The text picked up not only on the popular obsession with aristocratic evils but
on the reading public's fascination with the spread of rumor through circulated
letters. The letter served as a compromise between gossip and literary fixity. Since
gossip, so often unfounded and therefore dismissable, did not have the permanency
and visibility of a written text, it lacked the status of a letter; but the conventions of a
formal novel would have required a degree of narrative objectivity which Laclos
resisted. Letters permitted fluidity of identity while maintaining a semblance of
basis in fact; they allowed the development of a cult of personal style which linked a
person's subjective, private history to a public persona. As Habermas reports, "The
opposite of the intimateness whose vehicle was the written word was indiscretion
and not publicity as such. Letters by strangers were not only borrowed and copied,
some correspondences were intended from the outset for publication." (Habermas
One of the central characters of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, the Marquise de
Merteuil, states that her purpose in writing letters is "to create herself" (Letter
LXXXI). She means this in both a public and private sense. The Marquise writes to
spread information, to record details, to cultivate intimacy, to tell stories from her
own perspective, all of which permit her to cultivate an identity based upon her
invention of herself in discourse; she recreates her subjectivity every time she writes.
In writing about herself she disguises how she has written herself, creating a
hierarchy based on her deceit while maintaining the illusion for each reader that her
words convey her frank thoughts rather than a performance. In Letter LXXXI,
Merteuil reveals that her self-education consisted of her learning to dissemble --
hiding her emotions, performing false expressions, distorting words so that "by the
time [she] was fifteen [she] already had the talents to which most of [the] politicians
owe their reputations." Like the women Landes writes about, Merteuil uses this
private form to influence public spaces.
Merteuil's admission of lying to everyone, ironically, makes the reader more apt
trust her rather than less so. Based upon the collected information contained in
letters from the other characters, she gives the most reliable and perceptive account
of events in her letters to Valmont, who is the only character she is regularly honest
with. Everything she claims is corroborated by others, while the claims of others --
particularly those of Madame de Volanges -- often prove untrue. Reading Merteuil's
letters to Valmont is like reading her diary, for Valmont is partly the Marquise's
invention as well as his own; in writing to him she sees herself and her power
reflected. The reader as well as Valmont is seduced by Merteuil, invited into her
intimacy and asked to share as accomplice as well as voyeur in her schemes.
Valmont, like the Marquise, hides little in his letters; but as Merteuil points
Valmont is adept enough at deceiving himself that he occasionally completely
misinterprets the actions of others. He cannot foresee, for example, that Cecile
Volanges will resent him after being forced to surrender her virginity to him; nor
does he suspect that Madame de Tourvel plans to flee his presence after confessing
her love for him. The other characters, though honest in varying degrees with their
confidants, prove far more gullible to the suggestions of others, and therefore change
their stories frequently as they become aware of the information Merteuil controls.
Cecile and Danceny continually express their frustration that their youth and
inexperience leads them into foolish assumptions, while Madame de Rosemonde
explains that her age continues to expect better morals than those she finds around
her. The deluded Volanges has no sense of the intrigues taking place under her own
roof, and Tourvel allows desires to cloud her judgement even when she witnesses
Valmont's infidelities firsthand. Only Merteuil, then, offers consistent views of the
events as they unfold, for she pulls the strings which control the other characters as
well as herself. Not her objectivity but her subjectivity makes her the best reporter.
The Marquise's power is formidable. At no time does any character in the novel
power over her which she does not first grant. Superior in financial status,
social position, and reputation to most of her peers, everyone except Valmont and the
womanizer Prevan believes her to be clever, virtuous, and honest until the very end.
Merteuil is able to maintain this position by writing herself into the discourse of
others. She makes herself indispensable to every character she wishes to control,
maintaining elaborate plans to silence those who would betray her and punish those
who would best her. In the end, Merteuil escapes the consequences for the actions
which have wreaked havoc on her social set; she flees with her wealth, and despite
rumors that she has been humiliated and disfigured by smallpox, she quite probably
goes to "live abroad as one lives here," having only changed the scene of her triumphs
(Letter CLII). Reports of Merteuil's illness are reported by the unreliable Madame de
Volanges, who has repeated false gossip and misinterpreted events throughout the
novel, while the "editor" reveals in a footnote that for the moment he is unable to
include the final letters which would reveal Merteuil's fate, since they would offend
the public. As Thomas Kavanagh states, even if the rumors of Merteuil's ruined
beauty were true, "this is hardly so definitive a punishment as Valmont's death at
the hands of Danceny, as Danceny's exile to Malta, or as Cecile's entombment within
the convent," or as the death of Tourvel and the ruin of the Volanges, Valmont, and
Danceny lineages. The reader already knows from the episode with Prevan (Letter
LXXXV) that the Marquise is a genius at manipulating gossip. Perhaps she has her
servants spread the rumors of her illness and flight, knowing that fear of contracting
the disease will ensure her privacy, allowing her to sneak away from Paris
unscathed. In any case, since the Marquise has insisted throughout the novel that
she cannot be defeated except by her own admission, she is not defeated.
Much criticism of Les Liaisons Dangereuses has focused on the motivations
for the Marquise's stated desire to avenge the female sex and dominate the male
(Letter LXXXI). It is difficult to reconcile Merteuil's treatment of Cecile, her mother,
or Tourvel with a desire to "avenge" her own sex, since Merteuil is so willing to
sacrifice these women in an attempt to strike at the men in their lives for her own
purposes. Yet Merteuil seems genuinely fond of Cecile -- even sexually attracted to
her, as she indicates to Valmont in Letters XXXVIII and LXIII when she states that
she is "almost jealous of the man for whom [Cecile] is reserved -- and apparently
believes Cecile will be better off without her innocence, since she will be able to enjoy
the pleasures of love. Although Merteuil wants Cecile deflowered to punish
Gercourt, she believes she is liberating Cecile as well. Moreover, in encouraging
Valmont's pursuit of Tourvel, Merteuil stresses that the woman's morals rather
than the woman herself will suffer; again, she seems to think it will be good for
Tourvel to lose her morals, so she will not remain one of the women who "cherish
only the pains of love, not its pleasures" (Letter CV).
Women's power is always defined via their sexuality in the novel, but the power
not reside in female bodies; rather, it is located in the discourse surrounding female
sexuality. The fictional "editor" stresses the importance of female rites of passage in
the first pages of the novel, when he quotes a fictional mother who thinks it would do
her daughter "a real service" if she were given the collection of letters on her wedding
day. By placing such emphasis on the importance of innocence before marriage and
experience afterwards, the mother illustrates how important the sexual role is in
defining one's identity as a woman. But it is unclear what message the mother
wishes to give her daughter. On the one hand, she may desire to impress upon her
child the dangers of licentiousness; on the other, she may recognize that Merteuil's
advice to Cecile that she cheat on her husband applies in her own daughter's case as
well. If Les Liaisons Dangereuses offers any clear any message about female
sexuality, it is that what a woman does influences her reputation less than what she
says, and what is said about her by others. The virtue of a woman does not rest
physically in her body but in her control over the discourse of her body;
a virgin needs not her hymen but her reputation to maintain her status. As Dorothy
Thelander observes, "What society demands is surface respectability. A woman can
do as she pleases, so long as she is not talked about...what society enforces is not
sexual morality, but its appearance." (Thelander 157).
The Marquise is only too aware of this. She recognizes that Cecile's power is
not in the "guaranteed virtue" which her fiance values above her education and even
her substantial wealth, but in the public belief in that virtue. Cecile can only lose her
virginity once, but she can trade the value of its repute for a devoted lover, a wealthy
husband, or a night of pleasure as she pleases. The Marquise understands too that
Tourvel's power over Valmont stems not from her physical beauty or actions but
from her position as a chaste woman. Valmont himself feels certain that once he
has had Tourvel he will lose interest in her, since he desires to conquer her morals
rather than her body. Merteuil's own power is exemplified by her control over her
sexual relationships. On her wedding night Merteuil is aware that her physically
virginal condition will not alone persuade her husband of her chastity; she knows
she must show fear and coldness, and does, so that he will believe her disinterested
in sexual matters even during the act of intercourse. After his death, when she
takes lovers, Merteuil cultivates the illusion that they pursue her, so that she will not
be labeled an aggressor. She pretends to each new man that he is her first lover,
lying about having just bought the garden house she uses for each new liaison, and
ends affairs by convincing the men that she is overly attached to them. With the
single exception of Valmont, whom she pursued out of a singular passion that put
her at some personal risk, Merteuil is always in control over the stories of her sexual
adventures. Her relationship with Prevan is exemplary of her relationship with
other lovers: "I want to have him and I will have him; he wants to tell it and he shall
not tell it; that is our romance in a phrase" (Letter LXXXI).
Finding the other pursuits open to a woman of her class and situation
uninteresting and less "prestigious," Merteuil uses her considerable cunning in the
one endeavor which allows her to flout the gender restrictions of the society she
inhabits. She becomes "a virtuoso" of sexual deceit, putting her self-education to use
in a way that gives her pleasure and punishes the system which offers her few other
joys. It is difficult to decide whether to read Merteuil as a feminist or misogynistic
portrait of a woman. One the one hand, she helps bring about the demolition of
morals which limit women's educations and constrain their pleasures; on the other
hand, she forces other women to take risks she will not take as she uses the system to
her advantage rather than challenging it outright. The novel remains ambiguous on
the question of whether Merteuil's rebellion, so refreshing in the face of the passivity
of the other women, constitutes a substantial critique of the limited role offered to
aristocratic women, or whether Merteuil's behavior is merely an example of the
excesses of the aristocracy. Laclos wrote an essay "On the Education of Women,"
comparing the position of women in his society to that of slaves and insisting that
"education if worth anything should restore women to a state of complete autonomy,"
because women are "disfigured by our institutions" (Rosbottom 29-31). Yet to read
Les Liaisons Dangereuses as a feminist text requires repression of the
outrages perpetuated by the women of the upper classes against those of the lower.
However, to read the novel as a class critique, it would seem that the privileges
money, education, and property -- among the few privileges available to women, albeit
only bourgeois women -- must be rejected. Thelander argues that the men in the novel
fear disorderly women far less than disorderly class subjects; women can get away
with a great deal, but unruly servants are punished swiftly and severely.
Transgressions of social caste seem far more dangerous than those of sexuality. At
the conclusion, Volanges, Rosemonde, and the people at the opera are less appalled
by Merteuil's sexual misconduct than by her manipulations of their social circle; she
has destroyed a marriage and a potential marriage, humiliated members of the
aristocracy in front of their servants, and duped some of the leading men of Paris.
Such acts go beyond gender transgression: they are acts of violence against the
power of the ruling class. And acts of violence receive far more censure than acts of
licentiousness: Prevan loses everything when it is believed he raped Merteuil, and
Danceny is threatened with execution for his duel with Valmont. The threat of class
violence is already a powerful issue in the minds of men.
Thelander observes that the epistolary form of Laclos' novel makes it a highly
project. Rather than glorifying a few protagonists, it offers a realistic portrait of
many different people from a wide range of positions in their culture, demonstrating
the agency of many different people in shaping the new public sphere. This being the
case, it would seem best not to consider how the individual women of the novel
succeed or fail as feminist heroines; rather, I wish to consider their collective power
in shaping the reading public. Because they are never present as embodied females,
the women wield a power in the novel which they lack in society. The characters are
able to mobilize identities other than gender because they do not have to compete with
the significance of their bodies to do so; readers are able to forget at moments that the
character speaking is a woman, or an old woman, or a virtuous woman. Rosemonde
repeatedly complains that none of the characters listens to her because they see her
merely as an old woman, but readers do not necessarily "see" her as such; because
her powers of observation are keen and witty, she is perceived primarily in her role
as a writer, and only secondly as a woman and an older person. Similarly, it is easy
to think of the virginal Cecile as a character without a sex; she is a young person just
entering society, and the constraints placed upon her by gender limit her less than
those caused by her lack of experience and incomplete education. The importance to
Tourvel of her identity as a Catholic becomes evident in her first letter; when she is
seduced by Valmont it is her weakness as a religious subject, not as a woman, that
grieves her. And Merteuil can perform a wide range of identities not connected with
her body; she can act like a mother without being one, speak "as one man to another"
with Valmont, and use her financial position to gain luxuries usually reserved for
aristocratic men. Because they lack overdetermined female bodies -- not one of the
characters bothers to describe another physically in any detail, not even clothing -- the
characters can surprise themselves by suddenly remembering their genders. The
reader is constantly off-balance, reminded that gender is not a constant but a
performed identity; it can be put on or taken off by a character. The women are
perhaps most subversive not when they act like transgressive women, but when they
fail to, for at such moments gender seems unfixed, and the sexual caste system is
revealed as nonsensical.
If the characters become embodied as women, however, matters change. If readers
believe they can understand the characters' identities through their bodies rather
than their words and actions, the characters become objectified as the identities they
are forced to perform: they lose their subjectivities and take on ascriptive identities.
In the popular 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, this is exactly what happens.
A letter appears not very necessary when we can see
each other freely. What can it say which a word, a look, or
even silence do not express a hundred times better? (Letter
In Les Liaisons Dangereuses the characters write themselves into
in Dangerous Liaisons they are written upon, and not only in the scene in
which a courtesan's buttocks serve as a desk for Valmont. Christopher Hampton's
screenplay and Stephen Frears' direction inscribe and fix the characters into bodies
and settings, turning speeches into comments and performances into
improvisations. Where the novel offers differing versions of events, allowing the
reader to interpret from among the stories offered, the movie portrays a
straightforward narrative of causality.3 Rumors are repeated verbally even while
the characters' actions prove them false; letters are read in voice-over as their
consequences are being played out. Whereas the characters in the novel are largely
disembodied, since they describe faces, figures, clothes, eating habits, bodily
functions, and sexuality in only the most general terms, these same characters
become hyperembodied in the film. During the opening credits, Merteuil and
Valmont are offered up for audience consumption as the mannequins who will wear
the film's superbly designed costumes as the camera follows their dressing rituals.
Frears pays special homage to Merteuil's breasts, signifier of her feminine body, and
Valmont's head, repository of his masculine brain. Breasts and heads are
predominant images of gender in the film. Valmont is seen placing his face against
Cecile's breasts, predicting his victory over her body using his wit. When Merteuil
offers herself as a reward to Valmont for his successful seduction of Tourvel, he
kisses her breasts in gratitude. Each of these scenes links the woman to her body
and the man to his accomplishments; the women's faces cannot be seen as Valmont
bends over their low necklines. (Although in the film breasts are invariably
associated with female sexuality rather than motherhood -- women with children, like
Volanges, are not considered as sexual conquests -- it is ironic to note that the
Marquise's ample figure resulted from the fact that actress Glenn Close was
nursing during the filming.) The breasts, passive recipients of Valmont's attention
regardless of the feelings of their owners, become the objects of the male gaze -- not
only Valmont's but the camera's. The breasts are also restricted by the rigid
costuming, reshaped within the conventions acceptable to 1789 France and 1989
Hollywood. This control is necessary to maintain patriarchal order in the society and
the film: "Because unbound breasts show their fluid and changing shape, they do not
remain the firm and stable objects that phallocentric fetishism desires" (Young 195).
As the costume inscribing her as female, wealthy, sexual, formal, and vain begins
constrain her body, the Marquise's character diminishes before speaking a line of
dialogue. In the novel Merteuil writes her own scripts and performs them to her
liking; in the film she performs someone else's version of her story, which she had
no hand in creating. Trapped within a costumed body -- and within the house of
mirrors in which she lives -- Frears' Merteuil loses her subjectivity; she becomes an
object rather than an agent in events which unfold beyond her control.4 As Merteuil
loses her ascendant position in the novel, the readers lose power too; they no longer
have the power to construct narrative themselves from the information in the letters.
As the medium of communication is transformed from language to image, the
characters play out their desires through their actions rather than their words. As
Laclos implies in Letter CL quoted above, because of their embodiment actions are
perceived as more determinate than speeches. In the film, sexual victory is signified
not by the writing of a text of surrender, but by physical submission; it becomes
impossible for characters to feign feelings, because their physical expressions rather
than their words are taken as indicative of their feelings.
As a result of the switch in emphasis from word to image, the public sphere of
Liaisons Dangereuses becomes privatized. The vast social network of
correspondents becomes limited to a few principals; many characters who appear in
the book fail to appear in the movie. In the novel, everyone is aware that a private
letter may become public property, and writes accordingly; Cecile refuses to sign the
letter in which she confesses to having lost her virginity for fear someone will read it
other than its intended recipient, and Merteuil reminds Valmont repeatedly of the
dangers they could expose one another to by publishing one another's letters. In the
film, the public secrets revealed in letters become the private secrets of the home,
exchanged in conversations which cannot possibly be revealed except as gossip -- in
the novel, an unreliable source of information. Letters themselves cease to function
as a means of public discourse, becoming instead a means of flirtation or trivial
correspondence when they are used at all. As a result, publicity cannot be
successfully mobilized by the character who most effectively mobilizes it in the novel --
the Marquise de Merteuil.
The Marquise in the film is a private woman with private motives. Although she
maintains that she wants to avenge her sex, her actions seem entirely personal. She
wants Cecile seduced to punish Gercourt and Volanges, wants Valmont's obedience
because she craves his love. Her narration of self-identity from Les Liaisons
Dangereuses, used to maintain her power over Valmont, becomes the narrative
of her own seduction in Dangerous Liaisons. In the novel, the Marquise
remembers the genesis of their relationship as proof of her own strength:
"You see me constantly practice what I tell you here; and yet you doubt my
Well! Think of the time when you first paid your attentions to me; none had ever
flattered me so much; I desired you before I had seen you. Seduced by your
reputation, I felt you were lacking to my glory; I burned to wrestle with you hand to
hand. This was the only one of my inclinations which ever had a moment's power
over me. And yet if you wished to ruin me, what means could you have found?
Merteuil here is scarcely interested in winning Valmont back; rather, she aims to
demonstrate with how much more skilfully she, as a woman, has to conduct her
affairs than he. It is a pivotal document in the war of words between them, and
Valmont's failure to heed this letter leads directly to his death. As the Marquise
points out, the power Valmont possesses over her stems from her own pride rather
than his actions, and is "momentary"; plus, as she points out, the risks to herself are
minimal since he has no means by which to ruin her. The film, however, offers a
different twist on this theme:
V: So you're infallible, are you?
M: When I want a man, I have him; when he wants to tell, he finds he can't. That's
the whole story.
V: And was that our story?
Merteuil pauses before answering; the air is becoming increasingly charged with
M: I wanted you before we'd even met. My self-esteem demanded it. Then, when
you began to pursue me, I wanted you so badly. It's the only time I've ever been
controlled by my desire. Single combat.
Valmont slides down the sofa towards her; but the heavy silence is
In admitting that she was "controlled" by her desire, the Merteuil offers Valmont
renewed power over her. By placing Valmont and Merteuil on the same couch as
she talks and by emphasizing the physical interaction between them, Hampton
indicates that the spoken discourse is secondary to the bodily communication going
on between them -- a communication dominated by the active Valmont, who makes all
the overtures to which Merteuil responds. The screenplay implies that, had they not
been interrupted, the Marquise might have allowed herself to renew her sexual
relationship with Valmont, though she has just vowed not to do so. This is not single
combat, but surrender. This Merteuil is a considerably weaker woman whose words
lack the conviction of her double in the novel.
Frears seems more interested in catching the nuances of Merteuil's clothes and
makeup than of her words. She is the object of the viewer's gaze, not its director as in
the novel, in which a woman's attractiveness is linked to male perceptions of her
virtue (Gercourt wants the virginal Cecile because he believes blondes are naturally
modest; Valmont wants Tourvel because she's a "prude"; the various men who want
Merteuil all believe she is a pious person). Not one character is described thoroughly
enough to allow the reader to create a portrait based on the text. On the other hand,
the film leaves nothing to the imagination -- not the faces, not the clothing, not even
the naked bodies. A woman's attractiveness is linked to her femininity; breasts,
hair, grace, makeup, clothes, youth (in 1989 still a prerequisite for femininity)
construct the beauty of Merteuil, Tourvel, and Cecile, while Volanges and
Rosemonde -- the former too angular, the latter too old -- are never constructed as
sexual beings. When Merteuil removes her makeup at the end of the film, wiping
away the surface that makes her attractive, her desirability vanishes; her power has
been based on her appearance after all, not generated by her immense mental and
The removal of the makeup is an act of self-hatred, for in this film in which the
based upon bodily appearances, the destruction of her face is a symbolic destruction
of her self. (She has already committed a similar act of self-violence; upon hearing of
Valmont's death the Marquise destroyed her makeup vials and tore at her clothes
above her breasts.) In the final frames of the film "a new Merteuil seems for the first
time to be revealed, weary, fragile, vulnerable" (Dangerous Liaisons 75). She
has become a weak woman, like Tourvel, the kind of woman the Marquise of the
novel despises and punishes as damaging to her entire sex. The film's Merteuil
surrenders to the same fatal feminine weakness, Love, which destroys Tourvel. If
Merteuil is "punished" at all in the novel, it is as a result of her having gone too far in
asserting her dominance over Valmont: after declaring war on him in Letter CLIII
following his "most marital" attempts to order her around, she breaks Valmont's
confidence by showing his letters to Danceny, fully expecting to "win" by achieving
Valmont's humiliation. She cannot predict Valmont's death in a duel with
Danceny, and Valmont's dying request that her own letters be publicized. But "love"
is never the reason for the tragedies which end the novel; rather, they stem from
betrayals of friendship. Danceny and Valmont duel not over Cecile's honor but
Valmont's betrayal of Danceny's friendship; Danceny's final letter to Valmont does
not even mention Cecile, except in terms of their mutual betrayal by Valmont.
Similarly, the Marquise's refusal to renew her affair with Valmont stems from her
anger at his taking advantage of their friendship. She desires Danceny and is angry
with Valmont for interrupting that liaison. Although his continued passion for
Tourvel stirs her jealousy, the Marquise never gives any indication that Valmont's
love for another woman is the sole or even the primary reason for her personal
displeasure. Her motives are social: she has a reputation to uphold.
In the film, however, Merteuil's love for Valmont consumes and destroys her,
becoming the sole reason for her actions, which appear irrational in the film
although in the novel the same behavior seems in keeping with her previous
schemes. Valmont on the other hand becomes a tragic hero, evoking sympathy
through the denunciation of his own character -- "[Danceny] had good cause. I don't
believe that's something anyone has ever been able to say about me" -- and his
admission of love for Tourvel -- an event which did not take place in the novel. The
closing image of the unredeemed Merteuil, in tears after taking off her costuming
(the display of which at times seems the sole purpose for the film) puts the disorderly
woman firmly back into one of her assigned roles, mourning for her reputation and
her man. The woman didn't know her place; she destroyed men; and ultimately, as
if in punishment, she destroyed the only thing she ever loved and herself in the
process. The film hints strongly that she should have stayed at home, an ornament
rather than an actor, and left well enough alone.
"In the context of the novel, the word "fashion" has far less to do with
costumes and coiffures than with persons, behavior, customs, and ideas.
Certainly...Laclos [spends] little or no time describing clothes and hairdos but
[prefers] to follow the classic concept that refuses such detailing of exterior
physical phenomena...Novelists more readily consider people ˆ la mode than their
attire." (Lee 8-9).5
The female viewer of Dangerous Liaisons is faced with an interesting
dilemma. She can identify with the male gaze of the camera, sharing its
interest in Merteuil's breasts and body, or she can identify with the
transgressive object of that gaze, the marquise herself.6 Her position is
complicated in advance by two external discourses which are inscribed on the
already hypersignificant body of the Marquise. The casting of Glenn Close in the
role of Merteuil serves to aggravate the difficulty of identifying in a positive
way with the Marquise, for Close became known the year before the release of
Dangerous Liaisons for playing another blonde sexual aggressor -- Alex
Forrest in Fatal Attraction -- who threatened the sexual and social status
quo and had to be destroyed in the end by a "good" woman. Because the Marquise
wears the same face as the man- eating self-destructive bitch extraordinaire
Alex, many critics reviewing Dangerous Liaisons commented on the sense
of deja vu the casting of Close inspired. Some went even further in discussing
the parallels between the two Hollywood villainesses, perceiving the later film
as a sequel of sorts to the earlier: "You need only have seen her character in
Fatal Attraction..." (Benson 2). As a result, the Marquise may seem a good
deal more like Alex Forrest than like the character in Laclos' novel. Her
hysteria near the end of the film, so out of character for the cool Merteuil, is
perfectly in character for Alex, and her self-destructive final scene recalls
Alex's suicide attempts. Few women would wish to identify with psychotic Alex
(many screamed for her death during Fatal Attraction), so it is unlikely
that they would desire identification with her eighteenth-century parallel.
Yet Merteuil is made desirable through another discourse stemming from her body:
her fashion. Dangerous Liaisons capitalized on the overwhelming success
of series of Diana Vreeland fashion shows which had been taking place since
1981. As Debora Silverman explains, Vreeland's The Eighteenth-Century
Woman shows celebrated "feminism, hedonism, and Old Regime aristocracy,"
valorizing such women as Madame de Pompadour and Marie Antoinette. "Singled out
in the Vreeland show for their wit, style, elegance, aesthetic sensibility, and
physical beauty," these women were in fact among the prototypes for Laclos'
Marquise and for Frears' version of her. Vreeland, who saw the late eighteenth
century as "very close to the way we live today," created a demand for nouveau
French aristocratic clothes which was still in full bloom when Dangerous
Liaisons opened (Silverman 56-59). Frears' decision to film it as a
historical recreation of the Old Regime undoubtedly had as much to do with the
popularity of the costumes and furniture as with the recent success of two other
"period pieces," Amadeus and The Last Emperor. As demonstrated
by the Academy Award for Best Costumes and the New York Times Magazine
article "Gorgeous Liaisons, Dangerous Liaisons played a large role in
the trend toward plunging necklines and cleavage which made a comeback in 1989.
It also fed into the ongoing American fascination with Ancien Regime French
culture that dominated the 200th anniversary of the overthrow of that order.7
Consider one ad that ran in The New York Times Magazine in 1989 for a
nouveau ancien franc ais design sold at Bloomingdale's: "Between innocence and
cynicism, a single seduction of the highest order. Starring as co-conspirator,
Bob Mackie... Sleeveless charmeuse peignoir with French lace yoke, $140.00,
and lace bordered dressing gown, $500.00. Both in champagne... In our Dangerous
Liaisons shop in Intimacies on Boulevard Four, New York."
The ad features a woman in the lingerie, lounged on a chaise in front of a
Her motto, scrawled across the bottom of the page: "On m'offrait des plaisirs, je
cherchais des virtus." As Silverman points out of similar ads, the woman's
seductive powers stem not from her morals or even her gown, but from her money
and her ability to speak French. Like the film, the ad reminds readers that passivity
and elegance are far more seductive to men than aggression; but like the film, the ad
reminds readers that appearances speak louder than words.
Silverman links the success of Vreeland, the 1983 Bloomingdale's "Fete de France"
displays, and the ongoing interest in pre-Revolution French clothing and culture to
the ascendant aristocratic biases of the Ronald Reagan era; she even draws parallels
between Nancy Reagan's behavior and Marie Antoinette's. If pre-Revolution France
was breaking away from a public sphere centered at court, Reagan's America was
trying to structure a similar public, recentering religion, morality, and
dissemination of knowledge while cultivating a bourgeois consumer sphere entirely
dissociated from all aspects of production. If Nancy Reagan can be compared to
Antoinette, she can certainly be compared to the Marquise (though perhaps not in
wit or sexual prowess). For all the criticism of Mrs. Reagan reported by Silverman
from various newspapers, she obviously wielded significant power within the
masculine sphere of politics, power which emerged directly from her sense of style --
reportedly she would flicker her eyelashes to end consultations with her husband
In her 1980s incarnation, then, the Marquise has positive associations as well as
negative ones; she may look like Alex Forrest, but she can act like Madonna or Nancy
Reagan. Even so, she cannot wield the public power possessed by her 1780s prototype.
She cannot create herself through reading and writing, controlling the sexual
pleasures of textuality; the mass media has limited her role within the constraints of
commodity culture. The history of the Marquise's identity parallels the history of
women's role in the bourgeois public sphere. As her position becomes increasingly
privatized, her character changes from powerful aristocrat to banal domestic
subject. The novel and the film reflect more than the different women's roles in their
different cultures; they demonstrate the mobility of narrative, embodiment, and
publicity through the identity categories of class and gender, mediated by discursive
languages and commodity cultures.
1 I am deeply indebted to Lisa Koch of the University of Maryland for her essay
commodification of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by advertisers, and for numerous references she cites.
I am also grateful to Lauren Berlant for our conversation in February 1991 regarding the relationship
between the novel and the films based on it.
2 Because so many different editions of Les Liaisons Dangereuses are available, in this essay all
citations from the novel refer to letter numbers rather than page numbers. All quotes in English are
from Richard Aldington's translation. In a few instances I have retranslated certain phrases.
3 The 1985 stage play, also by Hampton, possesses some of the limitations of
the film but not others.
Although the characters have costumed bodies and never circulate outside private homes, the play
attempts to maintain the novel's attention to the words of the characters rather than their images.
Many of the letters are read as letters rather than recreated as dialogue, reminding the audience that
they are witnessing subjective interpretations of events rather than the events themselves. The
relatively few props reinforce the need for spectator involvement in recreating events. The ending of
the play, though unlike that of the novel, is still far more ambiguous than that of the film; the shadow of
a guillotine falls across the floor of Merteuil's salon as she plays cards with Volanges. This
indication that their entire society will be punished for its excesses -- an historical conclusion as well
as a moral one -- seems less problematic than the film's heavy-handed treatment of Merteuil, which
indicates that her gender transgressions rather than her classist exploitations cause her downfall.
4 Milos Forman's Valmont, released the year after Dangerous Liaisons, uses an inferior
screenplay by Jean-Claude Carriere and a relatively weak cast but nevertheless avoids some of the
pitfalls of Frears' version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Forman's characters are young, playful
aristocrats; Merteuil, a frivolous and fun-loving woman, has no feminist motives and no real desire
to punish men for anything other than infidelity to her, while the easily tempted Tourvel has no depth
of religious character and surrenders very quickly to Valmont's overtures. The role of language in
courtship, so important in the novel and even in Frears' film, becomes an impediment in Valmont
that interferes with immediate physical gratification. Valmont uses money rather than rhetoric to
woo Tourvel, and physical aggression rather than lies to ensnare Cecile. But the role of publicity is far
more important in Valmont than in Dangerous Liaisons. Sexual histories are discussed
openly at crowded dining tables, and no one seems in the least shocked when Cecile publicly
announces her desire to marry one man and keep another as a lover. Even "private" letters are shown
not to be so, as nearly every character can be seen at one point reading someone else's correspondence.
Carriere's ending, however, takes even more liberties than Hampton's with Laclos' novel; Cecile,
pregnant with Valmont's child, marries Gercourt, and the Marquise and Tourvel attend the wedding.
Everyone but Valmont escapes unscathed; but since the film offers no suggestion that any of the
women characters threaten the social system, it has no need to punish them for doing so. (I have not
discussed the 1959 Roger Vadim film with Jeanne Moreau as Merteuil, but find it interesting that Vadim
chose to set the story in the twentieth century, in modern dress; commentary on how little women have
5 I am grateful to Lisa Koch for this reference.
6 I am indebted to Laura Mulvey and Jane Gaines for the theory which informs this line of argument.
7 Madonna, whose plunging necklines have been almost as renowned in the press as
her singing, performed her controversial song "Vogue" at the 1990 MTV Awards show
in a dress nearly identical to the one Glenn Close wears in the opening scene of
Dangerous Liaisons. Madonna played a sexy, aggressive, aristocratic woman who
dominates the scantily-clad men who serve her and who is emulated by other women
in her sexuality as well as her dress and dance moves.
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