Jeanne Moreau and Gerard Philipe Mine Lust as Director Roger Vadim Courts Respectability in First Dangerous Liaisons Film Adaptation.



The chess board is gleaming black and white, appropriate if also mandatory as part of this high-end monochrome world.  The pieces are grotesque, if also unique.  The facade of carefree non-morality hangs heavy as the players take their seats.  Or are they taking the stage?  The scene is one of decadent weight with a tinge intellectualism, the onlookers trying hard to maintain their pulsating rhythms and small, small talk.  It can only end in exhaustion.  And here, exhaustion is death. Such is the final movements in the Glamorous Life…  


With its bossa nova gyrations and blatant female sexuality, French director Roger Vadim rattled societal perceptions with 1956’s …And God Created Woman.  It was his debut feature and made an indelible icon out of then-wife and star Brigitte Bardot.  With two immediate follow-ups on the high heels of that film failing to cause any comparable sensation, Vadim turned his attention to the presumably buttoned-up past rather than the forward future.  (He’d get back to that later with 1968’s Barbarella).  But of course, the past was never as buttoned-up as all that now, was it?

Les Liaisons Dangereuses stands as the first of numerous film adaptations of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous classic 1782 novel of the same title, which is told as 175 letters.  Vadim shifts the setting to one he has considerably more familiar with, the French bourgeoisie scene of the current day.  Hence, instead of the powdered wigs and rigid petticoats, it’s a world of tuxedos, ski holidays, and jazz.  Lots and lots of jazz- courtesy of the film’s original score by the great Thelonious Monk.  (Enjoy it all the more via the blu-ray’s isolated music track.  Cool, indeed). The sharp serpentine cruelty of the centuries-ago characters, however, live and breathe all the same.

Gerard Philipe (who tragically died very shortly following this) stars as the libertine terrible, Vicomte de Valmont.  In this version he shares a most open marriage to Juliette de Merteuil, portrayed with cold precision by the cool and bewitching Jeanne Moreau.  Together, they make a devious sport of courting other lovers only to cruelly cut them loose when they’re done with them.  The rules, strictly adhered to, are that no feelings for the prey must enter the equation at any time, and both are expected to keep the other fully in the know.  Simple.  Conniving.  Evil.

Though Philipe’s Valmont’s trysts dominate much of the screen time of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, none of it would land without the predatory oversight of Moreau’s Juliette.  With each decadent soirée she enters increasingly leaning into orgiastic territory, she, with her chain-smoking couture and permanent icy glare, remains ruthlessly unfazed.  In these moments, the world is hers and she needs nothing.  Nothing, that is, but control.  With her own beauty giving way to a younger set with their sort skin and Bardot-like charms, her purpose is increasingly less her own physical pleasure but the pleasure of operating her husband’s.

She wants to lead a glamorous life

She don’t need a man’s touch

She wants to lead a glamorous life

Without love, it ain’t much


Valmont takes to juggling three women in the course of this tale, one of whom he makes the fatal mistake of falling in love with.  That would be Marianne, a righteous and giving woman of virtue, superior in very way and portrayed by the director’s wife of the moment (he would ultimately be wed five times, mostly to his lead actresses), Annette Vadim (Stroyberg).  Unlike any other woman Valmont’s ever pursued along the way to his perfect track record, he is undeniably beguiled.  He pitches her to Juliette as his greatest challenge yet: the woman who in her moral resistance is so high above him.  (She’s de-lovely…).  The trick, he knows, is to penetrate her veneer- her identity– of nurturer and caretaker.  He does so by subtlety exploiting her inner resentment for the degree of control that is, in fact, held over her.

At the same time, there is sixteen-year-old Cécile, played by a pouty Jeanne Valérie.  Virginal yet ready to go, she has her own plans and her own future in mind.  Unfortunately the young men in her life can’t be bothered to marry her any time soon.  Enter Valmont and Juliette, each lining up to play Cécile as a pawn to their own duplicitous end.  The poor rich girl, all non-specific ambition and impatient libido, doesn’t stand a chance.

She’s got big thoughts, big dreams

And a big brown Mercedes sedan

What I think this girl, she really wants

Is to be in love with a man


As film historian Kat Ellinger points out on her audio commentary track, Roger Vadim, though famous by way of controversy and association (famous enough to appear in person and tuxedoed for an unnecessary explanatory prologue), has always hovered on the outskirts of the more historically relevant concurrent trends in French cinema (Jean-Pierre Melville; the French New Wave). Even, as Ellinger claims, he helped further liberate women in terms of sexuality by way of his morality-crunching heroines, he also pushed well-established practices of “the male gaze” into Hefner-esque territory.  Call it the early buffet of The Male Graze.  With his lingering shots of his impossible beauties in states of near-nudity, he continues what he began with …And God Created Woman.  (Is it any surprise that the grand prize of this match, his wife Annette Vadim, bears no small resemblance to Bardot?). 

Vadim’s later descent into flagrant exploitation would do nothing to elevate whatever respect his earlier work may be due.  In the case of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, he’s plainly worked hard to achieve a respectable air.  From his choice of lofty old world source material to his upright casting to his vivid black and white visuals, Vadim (like it or not) proves his chops as a filmmaker of legitimate talent.  This blu-ray editions does its due diligence in accentuating the many positives about this controversial film.  (Yes, it too found itself in its share of hot water with censors around the world, including the U.S.). Sit back and watch as he nearly invisibly steers this storytelling from austere drama to burning melodrama.

To date, Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been realized six more times on film, the next of which would be by Vadim himself with 1976’s presumably far racier Une femme fidèle (Game of Seduction), vehicle for Emmanuelle star Sylvia Kristel.  Later, better-known incarnation by Stephen Frears (1988’s Dangerous Liaisons), Milos Forman (1989’s Valmont), and Roger Kumble (1999’s teen drama Cruel Intentions) would further validate and venerate the source material on screen.  But for this effort, Vadim’s inaugural adaptation cannot be denied- and this Blu-ray edition from Kino Classics most assuredly does not.

Lead a glamorous life

She don’t need a man’s touch

She wants to lead a glamorous life

Without love, it ain’t much, it ain’t much

The images and promotional material used in the review are present only as a reference to the film and are not meant to reflect the actual image quality or content of the Blu-ray. “The Glamorous Life” lyrics by Prince, copyright 1984. Song performed by Sheila E.