A film about sex with very little sex in it, Stephen Frears Dangerous Liaisons is perhaps the definitive version of the novel by Choderlos de Locios (unless you prefer your Sarah Michelle Gellars and Ryan Phillippes to your Glenn Closes and John Malkovichs…and annoying escalator music from The Verve to a score by George Fenton).
How underrated is Stephen Frears? Despite mainstream credits like The Queen, High Fidelity and Hero, and a staple of arthouse selections including Dirty Pretty Things, The Hit, and Prick Up Your Ears, no one’s ever (at least in the US) clamoring for the release of his next film. Is it just because he’s a UK director working in a type of cinema that sometimes crosses the pond that he reminds me of Mike Leigh? I think they’ve actually dealt with some similar subject matter, and the lack of anticipation, the generally sterling critical acclaim followed by a short box office run seems a common thread.
You probably know the plot of Dangerous Liaisons. Malkovich plays Valmont, the seducer of women. His partner in crime, and eventual enemy, is Isabelle de Marteuil (Close). For reasons of revenge, she enlists him to seduce the young Cecile de Volanges (Uma Thurman). For reasons of reputation, he is also intent on seducing the very chaste Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). Amidst his pursuit of de Tourvel, Valmont falls in love. For the first time. Isabelle is in love with Valmont, Cecile inadvertently steals away Isabelle’s lover. Everyone stabs everyone else in the back, either intentionally (Isabelle and Valmont), or unintentionally (the rest of the cast).
That Keanu Reeves’ appearance in this film, as the empty-headed intellectual Danceny (ironically and appropriately cast), doesn’t descend immediately into farce is testament to Frears’ ability with actors. And the rest of the acting is stellar. This represents a highlight for Pfeiffer, whose innocence is a far cry from her other roles of the period – Tequila Sunrise and Batman Returns.
Malkovich is one of the strongest points of Dangerous Liaisons, particularly the way he plays Valmont, which frequently seems at odds with the rest of the goings-on. His body language is overly nonchalant. His delivery of lines, though forceful and direct, deviates from the aristocratic humility of his peers. He flops onto a couch and puts his feet up. He races up the stairs at full speed screaming at the top of his lungs following one of his conquests. When we watch him on-screen it’s easy to forget, despite all of the costuming and surroundings, that we’re in a period piece. Malkovich is the closest thing in this film to anachronism, but it’s so perfectly played, and so in character, that his actions and dialogue instead read as brash and brazenly out of place.
Frears coverage in here is usually fairly minimal. There are the requisite, beautifully framed wide-shots, but when in conversation he favors one, maybe two shots to tell his story. And he moves his characters frequently. People are always standing up, pacing, walking around one-another. It’s pretty classic blocking, and in Dangerous Liaisons it feels downright fidgety…and for good cause. Isabelle and Valmont can’t sit still unless they’re actively destroying a life.
In one of the many scenes where Valmont pursues de Tourvel Frears depends largely on one shot. Valmont follows her through the garden. He’s behind her. She’s walking towards the camera, which backs up with her. She gets alternately closer and further from camera, mostly settling in between medium shot and close-up. Valmont, just barely out of focus throughout the scene, darts to speak in her left ear and then her right, then back to her left, and so on. He’s constantly hovering over one shoulder, then disappearing behind her and appearing over the other shoulder. It’s almost comical – the type of blocking Hal Hartley would incorporate to make fun of blocking. But not only do both actors do it well (more on that below), but it’s also logical: Valmont is both the good angel and bad angel on her shoulder. He’s the one talking in both of her ears. He’s talking her in circles. He’s making her head spin. Pick any of these analogies – they’re all appropriate for the blocking.
I remember watching an interview with Michael Caine a long time ago where he talked about the actor’s responsibility in blocking. He was talking specifically about standing up. Sounds simple, right? Well, according to Caine (and any director worth his or her salt) it’s not. You have to “bring the camera up with you,” he says, standing in such a way that both feels natural but also gives the lens a cue that he’s about to do so. Therefore, walking to a predetermined point on the ground isn’t as easy as walking to a taped X on the ground and not looking at it. Walking behind another character and hovering from ear to ear isn’t as simple as dodging around behind her so that you appear in the frame. All of these actions require an idea of poise and purpose. A good actor (and whether or not this leads to good blocking is another debate entirely) moves to that spot with intention, whether there is some or not. The next time you watch a film check out how many times someone just moves. For no real reason. But they do. Better yet, next time you’re talking to someone and you aren’t sitting down watch how gradually, if the conversation is long enough and it’s an informal chat, both of you move, often in relationship to one another, but for no real reason outside of general movement.
In Dangerous Liaisons, Frears, Malkovich and Close are the masters at this. There’s another sequence where Close simply circles Malkovich as he stands still. She’s speaking to him. It’s a shark circling its prey, a vulture circling the dead carcass…but it’s also just a woman walking in a room in circles, which never really happens in real life. But it plays not only for those analogies and for the sake of movement in the frame, but also because Close moves like she has a destination (she doesn’t) and Malkovich stands like he’s meant to be circled (he isn’t).