“An idle man’s brain is the devil’s workshop.” -John Bunyan
The 1790s was a rough time for the French aristocracy.
Their estates were ransacked. Many fled the country in hopes they could wait out the Revolution. Some who stayed were decapitated.
So, why did this purging of the nobles happen in France but never in Prussia or England? Why did the UK get Downton Abbey and France get the guillotine?
To some extent, it was because the French deserved it. Many British nobles believed in their responsibility to serve community, crown, and country. The French nobles believed in the opposite.
Labor was discouraged. A French aristocrat’s title and privileges could actually be revoked if he was found to be working like a commoner.
Some say that the rich don’t pay their fair share, even though the top 5% of earners account for more than half of income tax revenue.
In America, “the rich don’t pay their fair share” is just a catchy campaign slogan. In pre-Revolutionary France, it was actually true: the nobility was exempt from taxes. This was an idiotic and unsustainable system.
So, what did these lazy, good-for-nothing aristocrats do? According to the influential 1783 novel “La Liaisons Dangereuses,” they played sick games with each other.
The 1988 film – based on the book – tells the shocking story of two devious French aristocrats. The Marquise (Glen Close) and Vicomte De Valmont (John Malkovich) are best friends. They have a lot of money and time, but no job and no moral code.
Their latest mischievous mission is to ruin two young women. Valmont is going to deflower a teenager (Uma Thurman) before her wedding day. And, more challengingly, he is going to make a pious married woman – Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) – fall in love with him.
The Marquise and Valmont are a peculiar pair of protagonists: they perform evil for the sake of evil. Valmont is the Vampire Lestat without the fangs. And the Marquise is somehow just a little worse; she does more scheming but doesn’t even have any fun.
The casting is inspired. You wouldn’t think that 35-year-old John Malkovich would be convincing as a slick-tongued lothario, but I believed it.
The most surprising decision was for British director Stephen Frears to have the characters use plain-spoken language with American accents. It underscores the fact that 18th Century aristocrats were people just like us; they were just caught in an absurd cultural situation.
The first 80 minutes is entertaining, juicy, and appropriately sick. [Spoiler Alert] The climax didn’t work for me, though. I didn’t believe for one second that Valmont really fell in love with Madame de Tourvel. All he did was manipulate her. And all she did was dumbly submit. How did her guilt-ridden foolishness melt his jaded heart? It made sense for the plot but didn’t make sense emotionally.
The one thing “Dangerous Liaisons” does perfectly is demonstrate how ugly, decadent, and useless the French nobility was in 1783. The storming of the Bastille was only six years away, and you can almost hear the time ticking away on them.