Through a network of connections, all stemming from the Marquise de Marteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, numerous relationships are developed in the course of time between the first and last letter contained in Les Liaisons Dangereuses. The combination and recombination of couples are based upon fundamental attraction; they're attracted by the senses, by a sense of conquest, and by a fascination with danger. Though the word "love" is tossed around, the only real obsession is with the thrill of seduction. The relationships last only as long as the sense of victory, but when they fall apart, they are not only broken but destroyed. Clearly, this is not the conduct of sound minds. It is the behavior of a society bred by hypocrisy, taught to believe one set of rules while practicing another. The unifying theme present in both the text of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and the film adaptation Dangerous Liaisons is the disfigured human nature of those living in a society based on artificiality.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos published Les Liaisons Dangereuses in 1782, a year belonging to a decade thriving with reflections on morality leading up to the Age of Enlightenment. Nothing confirms this atmosphere of uprightness more resolutely than the commencing of the French Revolution, an upheaval stressing moral decency and the need to eradicate aristocratic corruption. A key part of this age was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a philosopher whose emphasis on virtue greatly influenced Laclos. His epigraph to the novel quotes Rousseau's preface to Julie; ou, la Nouvelle Héloïse, "J'ai vu les moeurs de mon temps, et j'ai publié ces Lettres (I have observed the manners of my time, and I have published these letters)". Les Liaisons Dangereuses is a response to the moral state of Laclos's time. Rousseau believed that the inequalities of society are false; a person's aptitude does not depend on wealth or social status (Chew). At the same time, society constantly tries to attain ideals, such as happiness, that were never truly defined and so are unattainable. The Présidente de Tourvel shared an insight of this premise when she wrote to Madame de Rosemonde, "The veil is rent, Madame, upon which was painted the illusion of my happiness" (Laclos 355). These unattainable objects cause mental instability and erroneous behaviors. If the characters of Laclos's novel are viewed through Rousseau's way of thinking, one can see that although they belong to France's highest classes, they are altered by their social reputation to the point that even their emotions are artificial.
Laclos's main characters are so dehumanized that they lose the basic humanity found in each person and consider themselves far above common humans, even those of their own social class. "I was not fifteen years old, I possessed already the talents to which the greater part of our politicians owe their reputation" (Laclos 185). The Marquise de Marteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are undoubtedly guilty of having arrogant pride, a trait not unlike the "hubris" which causes the destruction of those infamous characters from theatrical tragedies. The intent of the novel is to bring them to justice. At the same time, the depictions of their exploits make the novel seductive and that Hollywood-type sex appeal is what translates so well to film. While the novel may have been scandalous and almost pornographic during the eighteenth century, today its language is almost prude compared to others of its type. It is the visuals allowed by film that updates it to the current predictable measure of sexuality. All aspects of Dangerous Liaisons - the extravagant and revealing (on the women's part) costumes, the burning lust shown visually between characters, the quixotic French scenery, the cunning words of both Marteuil and Valmont - contribute to making it a film regarding sex as a means of manipulation.
Although Valmont and Marteuil are guilty of arrogant pride, there are portions of their characters that lessen their malevolence. If Laclos intended for his novel to be about virtue in the traditional sense, he would have made sure that good and evil were as distinctly different as black and white and that only the primary evil-doers were punished. Valmont and Marteuil are punished, but the only survivor of the scandal, Cécile Volanges, enters a convent, not because she has a newly found religious fervor, but because it offers her a way of recovering the innocence she'd had before leaving the convent and being seduced. Danceny, like Cécile, also chooses celibacy. This transition to virtue shows that both have realized that sexuality had deceived them and while their misfortune was not as absolute as the "villains," it has made them unable to lead normal lives. These aspects - Cécile both beginning and ending at the convent and Danceny's choice of celibacy - of the novel are left out of the movie adaptation because its ending focuses more on the destruction of Marteuil and Valmont. Because of the time restraint that is given to film, the director's decision to lessen the focus on Cécile and Danceny - in reality only minor characters - enhances the overall impact by allowing the spotlight to remain on Marteuil's ultimate defeat.
More than any of the characters, Marteuil has had the opportunity to perfect her hypocrisy because of her early widowhood and independence. She knows what society expects of her and so she presents that side to society. In private, she is a seductress. To be a man in the eighteenth century was a luxury. Men were blindly accepted into society no matter their reputation. Valmont is received by every high society house despite his notorious behavior. Women's reputations and entire lives could be destroyed by a single word or idle gossip. Marteuil has discovered a way of not only living a double life, but of having a method of protection against the detection of it. Because she relies entirely on herself and lets no one affect her unless she determines it to be that way, she can almost be considered a heroine in women's struggle for independence during a time when society imposed such limitations. The influence of today's feminists caused 1988's Dangerous Liaisons to emphasize Marteuil's efforts even more. Unlike the eighteenth century, men are thought to be less chivalrous and more capable of deceit. On that same note, women capable of power and vengeance are not necessarily crass or unfit for society. Portrayed by Glenn Close, Marteuil expresses her feelings of superiority over all men - and women, for that matter - by telling Valmont, "And I've succeeded because I've always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own."
Laclos's moral message in Les Liaisons Dangereuses is clear - the consequence of great wrongdoings is death. Like all of the theatrical tragedies where hubris is the fatal flaw, he not only punishes those guilty of pride, but utterly destroys them. Valmont is punished by being slain in a duel with the devotee of the conquered Cécile, Danceny, after his physical relationship with Cécile is revealed by Marteuil. Valmont's forgiveness for Danceny's fatal blow is artificial; rather than a final act of goodwill, it is instead a means of facilitating an act of revenge on Marteuil. He uses Danceny as a device for revealing all of Merteuil's deceptions to the high society that respected her most. Laclos, however, was not satisfied with simply social revenge. He created Marteuil to be a strong, resolute force and so her punishment must be absolute. She contracts smallpox, destroying her physical beauty, loses her lawsuit, obliterating her wealth, and flees to Holland, poor and unknown. By disfiguring her face, the hypocrisy that society had required she possess has been revealed; "... her soul was to be seen in her face" (Laclos 413). This is the moment that one of the most distinct differences between the original text and the film adaptation occurs. In Dangerous Liaisons, the same fate awaits Valmont, but rather than Marteuil's face being permanently disfigured due to smallpox, her fate is laid bare in a much shorter span of time. After being booed and disgraced by the audience at the opera because of the widespread revelation of her true nature, she returns home. The final scene of the film is Marteuil sitting in front of the screen, slowly and despondently wiping off all of her makeup. This is undeniably the most powerful scene of the entire film and its strong point in comparison to the original text because it represents the ending of the artificiality because all has been revealed in a way that the disfigurement caused by illness could not have achieved in a single shot.
Following their exploits, Madame de Marteuil and Vicomte de Valmont challenge the concept of virtue by exposing, through their own downfalls, the artificiality of society and its lack of traditional ideals. Even Présidente de Tourvel, seemingly the most virtuous of characters, lacks the ability to retain her scrupulous morals when faced with Valmont's ultimate game of seduction, a fact that Valmont knew well before her collapse: "Let her believe in virtue, and sacrifice it to me; let the idea of falling terrify her, without preventing her fall; and may she, shaken by a thousand terrors, forget them, vanquish them only in my arms" (Laclos 24-25). Judging by the outcomes of Valmont and Marteuil, it would appear that the guilty characters have been appropriately punished. But the innocent suffer too; Tourvel dies and both Cécile and Danceny isolate themselves. Just as assuredly as Marteuil declared a war between herself and Valmont, another fact is certain: No one wins a war!
- Chew, Robin. "Jean-Jacques Rousseau." Lucidcafé: Library. 2008. Lucidcafé. 23 Nov. 2009 <http://www.lucidcafe.com/library/96jun/rousseau.html>.
- Laclos, Pierre Choderlos de. Les Liaisons Dangereuses. New York: Barnes & Noble, Inc. 2005.