Is it the danger? Is it the sex? Is it the raw look into the ruthlessness of humanity? What is it about Les Liaisons Dangereuses that has captured the fascination of the human race? Why have there been so many incarnations of this racy novel by Choderlos de Laclos, published in 1782? It has been recreated as play, film (many times, on screens big and small), radio show, ballet and opera. It has been enjoyed by generations of fans, young and old; its' appeal appears to be universal and it is still going strong. But why? What is there about it that, so, captures the imaginations and interest of so many?
I was a man in my twenties when I went to see a production of the Christopher Hampton play at the Dallas Theater Center. I was destined to like it: the opulent sets and costumes and all that intrigue - but then, as a gay male, I love that stuff that made the nighttime soap operas of the 80's so popular. I remember that I really loved the character of the Vicomte, even though the actor playing him was the worst. Of course, completely true to form, I was drawn in by the Marquise de Merteuil, as played by a local actress, Linda Gehringer; and I remembered seeing a scene from this play on the Tony awards a few seasons earlier. This memory flooded back to me the moment that I heard the dialogue
onstage at the Dallas Theater Center. You don't forget that kind of poetry. I went, immediately, home and found my vhs of the Tonys from the year in question and watched that scene. The actor, I recognized; he was gaining fame on film as of late. The actress, I did not recognize but I would come to know her work (and know it well), as would the rest of the world. With that, began my own love affair with Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
I know what it is that I love about this piece - be it on paper, on stage or on film. I have never seen the ballet or the opera but I have seen numerous stagings and numerous films. They are all different. They all have some merit and they all have some downfalls. I believe Les Liaisons Dangereuses to be like The Great Gatsby; it is so personal a piece that any individual who loves it is destined to be a little disappointed by each piece that they see. I am, rarely, as completely satisfied by a viewing of Les Liaisons Dangereuses as I am when I read the book. That's life. That book is a work of art. Especially capturing my favour is the fact that it is an epistolary novel. A book that is told, solely, by presenting the letters of the characters is an effective device (if used properly - I must admit that the novel The Color Purple lost me the moment the letters changed from Celie's to Nettie's - by that point I was only interested in Celie's letters; I didn't want to hear about Nettie). Les Liaisons Dangereuses, in print, traps my attention and holds it, captive, until the very end.
For me, I think what it is about the story is the humanity, the honesty. There are few struggles in this life as great as the fight between (what we are taught to be) good versus evil. Right or wrong, if you will; however you care to see it, it is all about the battle between opponents. Note how, in today's society, the righteous are always condemning those whom they believe to be deviants; note the fervor with which the so called deviants refuse to surrender their beliefs and pasttimes. We are a planet of adversaries.
The humanity of a person who chooses to be a manipulator, the earnestness of a person who strives to be (what they perceive to be) good, the honesty of the fact that we are all sexual creatures, the horror of the crimes we humans inflict on one another, the gift of intellectual strategy... all of these qualities are ones which every human being has the potential to possess, should they care to nurture them. For me, that makes Les Liaisons Dangereuses a fascinating look into humanity; and we all know what a voyeur I am, not to mention my obsession with the truth. Many times in this life I have wished I had a greater knack for cruelty and for strategy. I do not. The pain I have felt at the hands of others has led me to many daydreams in which I can be the cold, the indifferent, the (if you will) evil. Both sadly and happily, that is not me. So I watch and read stories like this and others like it and live, vicariously, through them. I imagine that I am not alone; and THAT is wherein lies the ongoing fascination with Les Liaisons Dangereuses.
Oftentimes, the subject comes up: are there any parts I would go back to work to play? Yes. The King of Siam. Reverend Shannon. Formerly Mozart, currently Salieri. Georges Seurat.
The Vicomte de Valmont. I've said it a number of times. I think I'd do a bang up job of playing him. I think I have a handle on several parts of him; not all of him. I imagine that Alan Rickman was the best Valmont ever and that is a big shadow to stand in. I will say, right out loud, that I did not like John Malkovich (though he did do a few things of which I approved), I thought Colin Firth was sexy enough but too charming, I was too driven to distraction by Rupert Everett's cosmetic surgeries to pay attention to his acting, I could not take seriously the adolescent performance or character created by Ryan Phillippe and Gerard Philipe adequately acquits himself in the french film by Roger Vadim. Something I came to realize, recently, though:
I'd rather play Merteuil.
And what gay man wouldn't?! But how would it be done? Would it be a man playing a man? Would it be a man playing a woman? It's very tricky when one gender switches and it happens all the time -- it isn't a point into which I need delve a LOT because I'm never going to do it. It's just a little pipe dream, like being the first man to play the Witch in INTO THE WOODS. The truth, though, is that Merteuil is who we are there to see. She is the driving force of the piece, the puppeteer of everyone in the story.
The funny thing about Isabelle de Merteuil (this is the name that most often is applied to the character, though it is changed in some incarnations) is that there is a framework for her; and the actor being dropped into that framework has the chance (along with the director) to flavour her in any way that feels comfortable. It is all dependant up on how they see her - because the important foundation about the character is all in the text; and if the actor says those lines, the story will be told.
So let us consider (what is perhaps) the most famous Merteuil: Glenn Close in the film Dangerous Liaisons (based on the stage play by Christopher Hampton). I watch this film (I have watched it a LOT over the years) and what I see in Mereuil is a woman who (yes) plays games with peoples' lives for her own entertainment and who (yes) gets a thrill out of the power of controlling those lives but who also (in my estimation) is a woman with a self esteem problem. I believe that she is striking out at people who have hurt her (the plot to destroy Cecile, just to get back at her former lover), while she is trying to manipulate her true love, Valmont, because she is jealous and wants him back (note how angry she gets when she has to hear details about Tourvel, even though she starts out their conversations about the woman with the delight of a gossip mongering teenager; she is not able to keep up the pretense within herself, though she can mask it from him); also noteworthy on the subject of her self esteem is the fact that, twice in the film, she is seen with a much younger man (one of them being Dencany), clearly unhappy but using the younger man as an ego booster, a crutch. I see a sad and lonely woman trying to find something to make her feel better about herself and life.
With Annette Bening, though, I see a petulant and bored young girl who was married off at an early age, widowed a few years later and left with a fortune and too much time on her hands. She is scheming but she is not devious. She is playing a game that she (has not mastered but, instead) has great instincts and luck at.
In the French mini series starring the (insert string of superlative adjectives here) legendary actress and iconic beauty and fashion trend setter, Catherine Deneuve, there actually is scheme involved. Setting the story in the 60's (oh, my God, the clothing!) and making her a working woman with a foundation to run and a fortune to hold onto gives the film makers the opportunity to layer in those DYNASTY esque motives. It's not just a game to this Merteuil; it is about position on the ladder and money, as well.
The less said about the movie CRUEL INTENTIONS, the better; though I will say that I believe the actors who appeared in this film are all wonderful actors.
I wish, desperately, that I could comment on the Jeanne Moreau film but it has been years since I have seen it and (although I own it) I haven't had time to watch it recently. I remember that it is fascinating, that it is sexy and that she is riveting... but to discuss the finer points and details would show my ignorance on this particular telling... and I cannot show my ignorance.. oh, no, no, no.
Neither can I comment on the original stage Merteuil, Lindsay Duncan, having not been in New York at the time of that performance, which I suspect to be the definitive one. I have been told that she played the role like a cat, lounging lazily throughout the entire play. Interesting and intriguing. I wish I had seen it. Alas...
Now. I HAVE seen the new Merteuil. She is about to open on Broadway in a new production of this work, so close to my heart.
Pat and I went, a few days ago, to the Roundabout Theater Company to see Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The Valmont is a man named Ben Daniels who has come over from England to do the play; and thank heaven for it. He is the closest I have seen to the way I see Valmont. He has the acting chops and he can take Valmont to all the places he needs to go (I find, especially, interesting the fact that his physical appearance becomes more unkempt and disheveled as the game crumbles around him and he loses control of his position and his ability to hold it all together). Alongside Mr Daniels is a very gifted cast that includes the extraordinary Sian Phillips (how stunning to see her onstage again - we see her whenever she is in New York), an actress that everyone should know named Kristine Nielsen (in the play she manages to balance the drama of the piece and the comedy of her character without ever upstaging the other actors or the production - that's what I call being in the moment!). Then there are these two beautiful young actors named Benjamin Walker and Mamie Gummer. I saw Mr Walker play Bert Cates in INHERIT THE WIND with my favourite actor, Christopher Plummer (one day I really must write down that story) and was impressed by his honesty, his ability to be present at all times in a role that does a lot of sitting still and reacting. He got my attention then and he gets my attention here because Dencany isn't an easy role - he can become a simp if you don't work it right. He keeps him youthful but masculine, steadfast but unsure. It's impressive. And this Gummer girl - I hear she has a mother who is a famous actress but I have to say that I think she will have a lustrious career of her own, based on her own talents, her own merits; and she deserves them. She manages to find comedy in places that I think a lesser actress would just say lines and be still - her comedy is in the way she says the lines and the way she uses her face and body to accentuate the naivete and lessening innocence of a pretty dumb (by virtue of her being so sheltered) character. These two are worth catching. Rounding out the main players is an actress named Jessica Collins who plays Tourvel with a wonderful sense of youth, something that I see rarely in this character. I usually see her played as a woman without colour, a vanilla piece of melba toast with a glass of milk (not, though, Michelle Pfeiffer, who should have had an Oscar for the film Dangerous Liaisons); but Miss Collins appeared to me to be like a Southern Baptist who married at 19 and believes what she believes because her family had her in the church choir since the age of 4 -- and now she has discovered sex. It is a powerful conflict to see in one so young.
And that brings us to the driving force, the puppeteer of the entire piece.
For the role of Merteuil, the director of Les Liaisons Dangereuses picked the American actress that I consider the new Julie Harris. Her name is Laura Linney. I think Laura Linney is IT. She can do anything. She has had successes on film, on tv, onstage. She is beautiful. She is gifted at comedy and drama. She is one of the most accomplished and lauded actresses of her generation, garnering not only award nominations and awards, but fans of all ages and great fame. Somebody once told me that she was the most famous person in The Sweater Book and I thought for a moment and said "You're right. At this moment in time, Laura Linney is the most famous person I have photo'd." I say she is the new Julie Harris because when she is an old lady, people will call her the first lady of the American Theater. (I want to say, though, she needs to do a musical, fast. Julie Harris did SKYSCRAPER and it proved that she could do ANYTHING. Somebody needs to write a musical for Laura Linney.)
When I read that Laura was going to play this part I was very excited. Not only did I think she is perfect for it; I thought she could bring something completely new to it. And I was right. Oh, it's not different in some ways: she is as beautiful as the other women who have played Merteuil, she has the calm and cool demeanour required for Merteuil, she has the strength upon which the character is founded. What I saw that was different, though, was a different kind of strength. I actually SAW the housewife. Merteuil talks about how she invented herself; she talks about having been a wife, having become a widow, choosing never to remarry; she talks about her lovers. She says that her sex has few enough advantages, she talks about not being ordered about, she talks about avenging her sex. This is a woman who has been used by men and has conquered it. I looked at her and heard what she was saying and her entire history flashed in my head; she has learned to become implacable in order to protect herself from further misuse and pain. To me, it is extremely visible in two moments in particular. The first isn't even her scene. There is a scene taking place before the audience while, cleverly costumed and lit, she moves (painstakingly slowly) upstage - a ghost, hovering above the proceedings, ever present and ever protective of self. The other is when she and her partner in crime, Valmont, get into a fight and he wrestles her into a submissive position on the bed: she grabs the footboard with both hands and stays perfectly still - an impenetrable fortress. The expression on her face says it all: "I went through this with my husband - I know how to beat you." These moments and others make her into a human being, flawed, with warmth that is trying to get out; warmth she will destroy anyone to keep inside so that she can remain in control. This Mereuil is not a bored girl and not a demon. She is flesh and blood and she is trying to stay in control so that she can stay alive; she will win or die.
I found it to be a perfect, a nuanced, an individual creation. That is what a real actress does. She reinvents.
I heard some people after the play saying that it was slow, that they didn't get it, that they couldn't follow. Pat and I looked at each other and just shrugged. I think it is simply that society has been given a free pass by all the reality tv and easy to read news blasts. People aren't being forced to use their brains as much as they used to (I know, sweeping generalization; oops) and they don't want to sit down for two and a half hours to listen to poetry. I LIKE listening to poetry. I wasn't bored, it didn't seem slow or long. And the concept of the director, showing the oncoming destruction of the French society by the manipulation of the sets, really rang true to me.
So I sought him out. The play was in previews, after all; he had to be around. Once I found him I told him that I thought it was simply marvelous.
And I meant it.Please note that I didn't do any pictures in this story and I was not able to find photos from the new production on the internet. Bummer