In 1959, Roger Vadim released Les liaisons dangereuses 1960, a then-modern adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel (read Wikipedia for a plot summary). The director alone made the movie a must-watch. Beyond his film career, Vadim is famous in France for being married to some of the most beautiful women in his time, meaning he could direct from experience, and he was recently featured as a protagonist in a friend’s novel. But as a movie buff, the cast was a true plunge into the history of French cinema. Gérard Philippe, France’s Brad Pitt-Robert Redford-George Clooney rolled into one as Valmont, the steaming Jeanne Moreau (Jules and Jim anyone?) as Merteuil, Jean-Louis Trintignant as the noob Danceny and even Boris Vian as a minor character.
Just to tell you where I come from, I first read the book (for school), then saw the Stephen Frears version (awesome, still one of my favorite movies ever), then Forman’s Valmont (nice but cheesy looks) and then the miniseries 2003 adaptation by Josée Dayan, also set in the 1960s. Proper taste should make me praise the Vadim version and trash Dayan’s for copycatting. But there is no point in comparing the two: in a way, Dayan’s was more inspired by the novel or the Frears adaptation. The Frears and Dayan version exude the feudalism, with all its vice and fairy tale lifestyle, from costumes to lavish sets, that were conveyed by Laclos’ prose. Also I believe the physique and status of Glenn Close in 1988 or Catherine Deneuve in 2003 made them more «by the book» Merteuils than Jeanne Moreau in 1959, who looked way too young and pretty for my taste.
The Vadim version version is interesting in its own right. The main plot difference is that Valmont and Merteuil are married. Sure, it’s an open marriage, but their old seducers archetypes are overall similar to the novel. Hearing Merteuil referred to as «Juliette Valmont» made my fan heart skip a beat, and the 18th century geek in me instantly made a connection with Sade’s Juliette, but let’s not get carried away. So yeah, weird at first, but it adds two news layers of complexity to the Valmont-Merteuil relationship. First, it makes the whole thing much more bourgeois than noble (see above comments on feudalism), which goes very well with the sets and costumes. In a way, it’s a more down-to-earth, approachable, close-to-home version of the Liaisons. Even the famous «it’s beyond my control» scene is completely different, way more contemporary in its vision of how men are wimps. It also features a really nice use of technology, which overall is one of the fun aspects of this version. There are several examples, my favorite being when Valmont makes a phone call on Volange’s naked back.
The second layer explores the notion of open marriages, which is much more complex than just a nice on-and-off relationship between old lovers who respect/love each other but are neither married nor living together. The main rule is «no lies» meaning “you can fuck anyone but need to let me know”. The other rule is that falling in love with people you fuck and behaving like a husband is for losers. I am fascinated by these rules as I believe that for 90% of couples they cannot work in the long term, that people will be hurt by true openness or by societal pressure. Seeing these clashes in person, in modern apartments, makes it much more relevant than in 18th century castles and letters.
For some more casting differences, Jeanne Valérie as Volange is both more friendly-stupid and more kinky than Uma Thurman. To the modern French viewer, Annette Vadim looks like Adriana Karembeu channeling Brigitte Bardot, which is not too far from the marital situation of Vadim at the time. Seeing Jean-Louis Trintignant as a young innocent nerd is extremely weird as I first saw him in Bilal’s Bunker Palace Hotel. Again, proper taste would make me say that he’s better than Keanu Reeves (because everyone is better than Keanu Reeves right?), but he looks a tad too old and acts a tad to hard for my taste. Like Rupert Everett in Dayan’s version, Gérard Philippe’s physique makes him a much more believable Valmont than say, John Malkovich. Don’t get me wrong, Malkovich was amazing as Valmont, but he also has acting super powers to make us forget he just didn’t really look the part.
From a general aesthetics point of view, Liaisons 1960 was a bit hard at times. The acting is a bit over the top, and I am used to seeing these looks from my parents’ photo albums, so “dated” doesn’t even begin to describe it. The flipside is that the general stuffy interiors, strict costumes etc actually make the eroticism so much hotter: after seeing ugly ass sweaters and poofy skirts for an hour, the mere display of a naked hip is sure to turn you on.
My favorite aesthetic choice was the jazz score, by none other than Thelonious Monk. Not only is the recurring theme nicely mesmerizing, but it strengthens the film’s historical value : Paris and jazz have a very special history of both sophistication and crazy liberation, and this perfectly fits the theme, down to having Boris Vian as part of the cast (the guy was both a badass writer and jazz musician). One of the final scenes in the jazz club is perfect, from the surreal pagan atmosphere to the virtuosity of the players. Yes, I loves me some drums.
Si I’m glad I finally got to watch this version, the next one on my list is Cruel intentions. If I found Moreau too young and pretty as Merteuil, I wonder what I’ll say for Buffy! Then it will be the Korean and Chinese versions, time to take it one step further!
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