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Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Winning Sexual Conquests; Losing the War

By Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, adapted by Christopher Hampton
Théâtre de l'Atelier, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, D.C.
Thursday, December 6, 2012, P-6&8 (back right orchestra)
Directed by John Malkovich

Anybody fortunate to have seen the original 1985 Royal Shakespeare Company's stage version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses with Alan Rickman or Jonathan Hyde (whom I saw) knows why John Malkovich got the part of Vicomte de Valmont wrong in the 1988 movie, Dangerous Liaisons. Valmont should not be a smarmy, creepy, ever-cynically sinister character. He is cynical, yes; sinister, true; creepy, definitely; and maybe smarmy, too, but all that is interior to an exterior of dexterously social affability that not only inspires beyond-familial love from his wise aunt but also true affection from his servant, a lingering longing from a socialite who knows better, and, most importantly, the passionate love of the pious Madame de Tourvel, despite her grasp of his reputation.

Valmont needs to be played like Yannik Landrein plays him in the French-language Théâtre de l'Atelier's production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses directed by, ironically, John Malkovich. Making their only North American stop with a four-day engagement with the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C., these young French actors give a fresh and energetic rendering (with English subtitles projected on a screen above the stage) of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos' 1782 story (adapted for the stage and film by Christopher Hampton) of sexual intrigue among the Parisian upper classes.

The real credit of freshness, though, belongs to Malkovich, the director. Starting with the auditions, he realized that he could build his production “solely upon the emotions that the actors would bring to the text,” he writes in his brief program notes. Just as proven in the 1999 movie Cruel Intentions, which reimagined the play as a modern prep school soap opera, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is both an ageless and a timeless story.

Valmont dead on the stage to the right, Merteuil kneeling in the middle, and Tourvel dead on the courch to the left, and the rest of the cast linked in a tabeleau behind against a dark background
The cast of Les Liaisons Dangereuses ends the play in a tableaux. Front from left, Tourvel (Jina Djemba), Merteuil (Julie Moulier), and Valmont (Yannik Landrein); back from left, Emilie (Lola Naymark), Madame de Rosemonde (Sophie Barjac), Cécile (Agathe le Bourdonnec), Volanges (Pauline Moulène), and Danceny (Mabô Kouyaté. Photo by Gaspard Leclerc, Shakespeare Theatre Company.

Malkovich makes this self-evident in his production's costumes, in which designer Mina Ly combines Ancien Régime and modern dress. Valmont wears tight black jeans and cravat. The young suitor Chavalier Danceny (Mabô Kouyaté) wears pantaloons and a silk-screened T-shirt. Cécil de Volanges (Agathe Le Bourdonnec) is in an 18th century-style frilly taffeta dress and 21st century cardigan. Her mother, Madame de Volanges (Pauline Moulène), wears a black and gold-patterned knee-length straight skirt under the framework of a hoop dress. Interesting thing about the hoop frames—while most of the women characters wear hoop dresses, the frames over modern dress are visible on only three characters: Madame de Volanges, the courtesan Emilie (Lola Naymark), and Marquise de Merteuil (Julie Moulier), the play's female lead (played by Glenn Close in the movie). Perhaps this is a visual clue. The sexual proclivity of Emilie and Merteuil are obvious, while Madame de Volanges attests that she is not of that ilk (though Valmont testifies otherwise). Equally interesting: Moulier, wearing a sleek black cocktail party pant suit under her hoop frame, discards the frame for the play's second half.

Props and practices also blended ages. Valmont's letters to Madame de Tourvel are composed on an iPad, and characters share texts and engage in sexting on their smartphones.

Malkovich's most clever contribution to this play is keeping his actors on stage throughout the performance. In fact, as we enter the theater, most of the cast is already on stage, milling about and chatting among themselves like college students at a frat mixer. Characters would leave their scenes and sit somewhere on the outer edges of the simple French boudoir set (designed by Pierre-François Limbosch); yet, those characters would never quite leave the action. The actors in the scene would physically refer to that character to the side or even walk over and around them as they gossiped about them; Valmont even takes Madame de Volanges' hand as he talks of her, and she smiles up at him, another piece of evidence that she is wearing that hoopframe for a reason.

Yes, the characters on the side often respond to their mentions: a tip of the head, a knowing wink, a bashful turn—the line between character and the actor playing him or her blurred. In this way, this talkative play remains full of energy and ramps up the humor, too. Valmont's dictating his letter to Madame de Tourvel with the assistance of the nude Emilie, already a funny scene as written, gets a slyer edge as Valmont admires Emilie's body while crouched down next to a bemused Jina Djemba playing Tourvel.

The only character absent at play's start is Tourvel. She first appears as Valmont first speaks of her to Merteuil as the target of his next conquest, and Djemba strolls onto the stage in white lace like a Spanish Madonna in a festival procession. She takes her seat and, stoically watching, awaits her turn in the script. In neither the original stage version nor the film (the role played by Michelle Pfieffer) was Tourvel's piety so pronounced, and it visually depicts the heights to which Valmont's depravity aspires, and the depths to which Tourvel's spirituality falls (she ends up in a red bustier and lingerie by play's end). The visual contrast also clues us into the degree of contempt Merteuil has for Tourvel: contempt of condescension toward Tourvel's piety in the play's first half, contempt of jealousy toward Tourvel's sexual hold on Valmont in the play's second half.

No matter the aristocratic trappings of the times and the script's linguistic wit (or, in this case, bilingual wit), this is a play about raw emotions of the heart. Valmont and Merteuil make sport of those emotions in others and use their sexuality as a means to power (Merteuil's recounting her own history is one of the great feminist manifestos of its time). However, neither Valmont nor Merteuil realizes how their sport upon others is simultaneously creating deep chasms in their own hearts. The onetime lovers can never fully let go of each other. They really should have been married, but that notion runs counter to Merteuil's belief that “vanity and happiness are incompatible” (she will never accept the existence of true love, so she would never know how it can merge vanity and happiness).

Thus, their undoing is mutually singular. Merteuil appreciates Valmont's sexual conquests with other women, knowing she remains his chief desire; but then he encounters a sexual nonpareil, and her subsequent hurt knows no bounds. He takes sex in stride until he experiences a truly spiritual encounter, and his infatuation can brook no confine. Even after Valmont breaks with Tourvel, Merteuil knows she will never again hold ultimate sway over him; her own pride and her desire for power over companionship can lead only to war between them.

This is the tragic turning point in the play for the two main characters, but it's also the point where the true villain emerges. Valmont is despicable, to be sure, but he engenders fascination among the other characters in the play and, as played by Landrein, among us, the audience. He's not just debonair, he's suavely handsome, eye-twinkling clever, and smooth, even as he moves from rascality to penitence and from reverence to seduction. “He has a way of putting things, you just can't think of an answer,” says Cécile after Valmont has raped her. Landrein makes Valmont's debauchery a worthy quality.

Moulier's Merteuil seems nothing more than a schemer with a chip on her shoulder at first. She's clearly playing the game of social pretense and enjoying every minute of it, especially her genial sparring with Valmont—until she spies him, entranced, watching Tourvel singing an aria. Moulier's demeanor shifts, emoting a bearing of inner power and gathering storm as she confidently strides on her stilettos and watches Valmont, even in her off-stage moments, with expressions of incredulity and disgust.

Strong performances of this brilliant script make Les Liaisons Dangereuses an entertaining evening of theater, but Malkovich's staging extends the play's metaphorical reach. Les Liaisons Dangereuses strikes a chord as it sounds many discords in our hearts.

Eric Minton
December 11, 2012

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