Monday, March 26, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Oft-Told Scandal

If there’s one thing that sells movies consistently it would have to be sex. Runners-up include intrigue, murder, celebrities and explosions (writing comes in at #39 and originality at #81). These completely made-up statistics go along way to explaining the popularity of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 novel “Dangerous Liaisons” (although it has no explosions). Given that there have been five major theatrical adaptations released so far it is time someone wrote a definitive comparison. The Film Walrus therefore presents a special Iceberg Arena Battle Royal. A chart at the end of this post keeps track of the rankings for each point of comparison.

The following contest will spoil the plot, but the story isn’t terribly important and besides, if you don’t know it already you’re unlikely to read/see it soon anyway. Set amongst the French aristocracy just before the revolution, Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil are two scheming high-society members who take their pleasure and power from countless cynical sexual escapades. Merteuil discovers that one of her former lovers is engaged to a virginal ingénue, Cecile, and decides to take revenge by asking Valmont to seduce her and make the future husband a laughingstock.

Valmont is reluctant since he has recently set his sites on the married, morally-upstanding Madame de Tourvel, a target more worthy of his skills. Valmont does eventually agree, however, after discovering that Cecile’s mother has warned de Tourvel of his insincerity. While tricking Cecile into sex, he learns that she already has her eyes on a young music teacher, Danceny, and Valmont encourages them to begin an affair.

While Valmont does succeed in seducing de Tourvel, he doesn’t realize in time that he’s found true love and is tricked by the jealous Merteuil into spoiling the relationship. In response, Valmont ruins Merteuil’s recent affair with Danceny, but has the tables turned when Merteuil reveals Valmont’s seduction of Cecile to the hot-tempered Danceny. Danceny challenges Valmont to duel, fatally wounding the reformed philanderer, but not before providing Danceny with letters that permanently disgrace Merteuil.

If it sounds complicated, it is, but the constant intrigue, power changes and double-crosses are what make the script so much fun. Each of the film adaptations have borrowed the basic skeleton but put their own spin on the story, often with dramatic differences.

The first film adaptation was Roger Vadim’s 1959 French language “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” which updates the story into the 1950’s and sets much of it in the Swiss Alps. British director Stephen Frears followed in 1988 with “Dangerous Liaisons,” a straight-forward adaptation with few changes and an all-star cast. Frears’s version released to critical acclaim, much to the chagrin of former Czech New Wave director Milos Forman, who was already into production on his own American version. His “Valmont” soon appeared in 1989 and is set several decades before the novel’s time period. In 1999, the largely untalented Roger Kumble made a trashy modern teen exploitation version called “Cruel Intentions” which became a guilty-pleasure sleeper hit. The most recent version, “Untold Scandal” (2003) came from the relatively unknown Korean New Wave director Lee Je Yong, who places the story in his own home country whose aristocratic period took place a few decades after the novel’s.

Frears’s version is the most true to the book, keeping the original ending, leaving much of the dialogue intact and making the setting historically accurate.

“Valmont” comes fairly close in terms of accuracy but “Americanizes” (read: dumbs down) some of the dialogue, romance and plot events. Forman inexplicable chooses to excise Valmont’s deathbed revenge in favor of making Valmont’s death into a suspenseful surprise, a dubious choice that deprives Merteuil of her fated comeuppance.

“Untold Scandal” remains surprising similar despite the culture shift, perhaps due to the shared period of puritanical trappings that hide a darker underworld. Lee Je Yong’s ending humorously maximizes film’s visual potential by replacing the final letters with explicit artistic rendering, but offers Merteuil a surprisingly redemptive coda that is unique, though cheesy.

“Cruel Intentions” warps surprisingly little of the basic set-up and seems at home amongst its bevy of modern promiscuous teens. The major change is the atmosphere, now dressed up in a hip, trendy veneer rather then a prim and stuffy one. It also puts a timely twist on one subplot to add a fitting homosexual angle. The reputation-wrecking letters being entirely inadequate for a modern adaptation, Kumble has the de Tourvel character handout Xeroxes of Merteuil’s diary (which includes a diagram of the cocaine-filled crucifix she always wears) during Merteuil’s insincere funeral speech over Valmont’s grave.

Finally, “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” takes the most liberties with the script, but does so in a wholly appropriate manner. To make Valmont and Merteuil’s friendship/rivalry all the more bitter and intense, Vadim makes them a long-married couple with an “honest, open relationship” that thinly disguises their secret hatred for each other’s infidelities. Also deeming the original ending too weak for a modern movie, Vadim transfuses the irony factor into de Tourvel’s grief-induced madness. Merteuil gets her comeuppance by somewhat arbitrarily catching on fire, becoming permanently disfigured.

One of the main ways these films distinguish themselves is through their ensemble casts, since the performances are key to the complicated, deceit-filled and emotionally diverse script. The Film Walrus will exam the five lead parts: Valmont (reformed scoundrel), Tourvel (virtuous love interest), Merteuil (villain), Cecile (naïve virgin) and Danceny (Cecile’s boyfriend).

Chief amongst the Valmonts is actually Untold Scandal’s neophyte Bae Yong-Jun, in his first cross-over role after a successful career on Korean television. Bae is clever, persuasive and subtle, pulling off the charm and seductiveness of the character at every level. He is so full of his own lies that even he finds it difficult to tell when his feigned love becomes sincere. Vadim’s Gerard Philippe comes close to the right balance and seems believable as the irresistibly confident rogue. “Valmont” displays a young Colin Firth doing a passable job that falters only occasionally on the delivery but isn’t particularly memorable. The much-lauded John Malkovich is truly overrated in the role, tipping his hand too far toward the smarmy, evil and conceited side making him unconvincing as a successful seducer or as a romantic reformer. Ryan Philippe in “Cruel Intentions” needs no discussion.

The role of Tourvel is a relatively difficult and thankless part; especially considering how one-dimensional and prudish the character is (everyone else gets to have much more fun). Michelle Pfeiffer (in 1988’s “Dangerous Liaisons”) handily takes first place in terms of performance, but Cruel Intention’s Reese Witherspoon looks the part and feels the most at home channeling the essence of purity and sweetness in a way that makes the one-dimensionality an advantage. Vadim casts his then-wife (unsurprising for the womanizing oft-married director) Annette Vadim in the role and gets from her a workable performance. Both “Untold Scandal” and “Valmont” (with Meg Tilly) are flat and uninspired beyond redemption.

The villainous Merteuil is the part generally played with the most relish and has given many actresses a chance to show their fangs and develop a darker image. Jeanne Moreau easily steals the show in the French original with a keen, jaded performance that is downright chilling. Annette Bening gives the best performance of the “Valmont” cast and manages to the fullest arc from an initially pitiable and sympathetic position to one of malicious spite (sadly, she has a terrible evil laugh). Sarah Michelle Gellar successfully dirtied her role-model/girl-power reputation from TV’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and comes across convincingly vampy in a rare brunette performance. Frears’s version features Glenn Close who hogs a lot of screen time but totally overplays her part and looks too old and too unpleasant to fit the part, but does convey an intimidating viciousness. “Untold Scandal” comes in as the least memorable, but Lee Mi-Suk does get to have some of the most outrageous hair in screen history.

Cecile, like Tourvel, is a difficult part due to its relative simplicity and limited range. None of the five movies pull it off with any great flourish and Uma Thurman (in the 1988 version) is probably the best simply by virtue of being unobtrusive. “Valmont” puts a young Fairuza Balk to good use, especially her expressions for confusion, nervousness and shock, but she lacks depth. The Cecile in “Untold Scandal” is pretty ridiculous in her doe-eyed naivety but amply sells the fragility and giddiness of the part. Selma Blair in “Cruel Intentions” and the forgettable girl from “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” are both too whiny and petulant, ultimately distracting rather than complimenting the other performances.

Finally we have Danceny, a role necessary for the plot but certainly the most minor. Essentially the part is a male version of Cecile with less lines and more hurt pride, not really a juicy performance to dig into. Vadim manages to turn it into a fairly brilliant bit-part for the superb Jean-Louis Trintignant (in a young, pre-famous cameo) as a student torn between study and puppy love. “Untold Scandal” casts the handsome Jo Hyun-Jae who give the part a little of the youthful swagger and recklessness reminiscent of Toshiro Mifune’s samurais. Sean Patrick Thomas gets the job done, and adds some needed racial diversity to “Cruel Intentions.” Meanwhile Keanu Reeves and the kid from E.T. (in the 1988 and 1989 versions respectively) compete to see who can make the most insanely awful catastrophe out of their brief appearances.

In terms of the films’ looks, Frear’s and Lee Je Yong both get the most glitter and glam by pouring money into the lavish costumes and decoration, vividly rendering the period detail. “Valmont” trails a little behind, clearly harder-up for cash and sticking to a Czech aesthetic that seems a little dull, particularly in regards to the soft-focus cinematography. “Cruel Intentions” is crisp and clean, but uncaring about its mise-en-scene and without any period splendor to exult in. While Vadim’s French version probably had the smallest budget, it wins hands-down in terms of style, technique and craft. Vadim’s wildly inspired camera angles, mature sense of framing and motion, and formal black and white photography helped to usher in the French New Wave while belying the poor film work on his “And God Created Women” and “Barbarella.” Frears, Foreman and Yong have the talent but not the ambition or creativity to match Vadim. Kumble just phones in his direction.

Perhaps there is some generational bias, but I have to award “Cruel Intentions” with the best and most thematically relevant music, featuring some of the best of the late 90’s indie circuit like Placebo, Blur, The Verve and Fatboy Slim. Vadim also finds somewhat unusual, but well-suited inspiration in a jazz/bebop score by Thelonius Monk. Frears opts for somewhat obvious period orchestrations, a decision matched by “Untold Scandal” with less successful results given the cultural displacement and emotion accenting. “Valmont” comes in last with some classical pieces of its own diluted by several execrable unharmonious choir numbers.

Overall, the original “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” wins in my book, with a solid overall cast and stellar camerawork. Following that, “Untold Scandal” beats out “Dangerous Liaisons” by a hair due to its less overworked cultural setting and strong lead. Frears’s version deserves much credit and is probably the best bet for someone looking for a straight-forward adaptation with no surprises and high credibility. Despite being almost completely artistically bankrupt, “Cruel Intentions” may be the most accurate to the spirit of the novel, delivering attractive faces and shameless fun in a fast, energetic and fully modern package. Its excellent soundtrack and appealing cast have earned it a reputation as one of the best slices of 90’s teen trash. “Valmont” is probably the most disappointing, far too long and too compromising; destined to be viewed as a poor-man’s shadow of Frears’s film.

Winner: Roger Vadim's 1959 "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"


Unknown said...

Excellent comparison of the films. Interesting how the minor characters being bad ends up being quite distracting. SHUT UP, MEG TILLY! That is not an accent!!


Mad Dog said...

Don't forget that there was actually an abysmal TV pilot based on "Cruel Intentions", too.

It's legendarily awful.

Mad Dog said...

BTW, I'm assuming that you were ranking those elements in the Excel spreadsheet, not scoring them out of five? If so, then I'm not sure that a mean says a whole lot, but that's just me.

FilmWalrus said...

There is actually a 2003 TV miniseries from France also based on the same novel that is supposed to be decent. It has Rupert Everett as Valmont, Catherine Deneuve as the Mertueil and Nastassja Kinski as Tourvel.

The films are ranked, though I'd be pretty amusingly harsh it they were scored. The average doesn't say a whole lot, but makes sense if you think of the lowest score being the best. It doesn't include accuracy and chronology.

As for the Cruel Intentions franchise, there were at least two sequels, too, with ever more B-ish actors filling in for the embarassing material.

Unknown said...

To the guy who got here googling "free papers comparing Dangerious liason and Cruel intentions," I hope that you enjoyed the site, but also that you figured out that 1) there are more than those two versions of the book (!!!) and 2) I will kick you in the face if you do plagarize film walrus's essays.

--girlfriend of The Management