I’m not sure a correspondence with you is something a woman of honour could permit herself. —Madame de Tourvel, to Vicomte de Valmont
Formidable! Is “Dangerous Liaisons” (1988) the best costume drama ever? Yes or no, it presents an amazing fictional demonstration—almost a primer or casebook study—of what cognitive scientists and primatologists call “Machiavellian Intelligence.” In brief, that is the idea that success for smart social animals such as rhesus macaque monkeys or Homo sapiens depends on sophisticated abilities to make long-term plans, to surmise the motives of others, and hence to favorably influence the behavior of both friends and foes. It is closely related to “Theory of Mind,” an understanding of the internal drives, fears, and desires of one’s conspecifics. DL features most of the clashing elements that make communal life inherently a soap opera. What causes it to stand out are the meticulous care its creators put into making the main characters brilliant and then setting them in conflict, the luxurious wardrobes and locations, and finally the performances of the actors, with John Malkovich as le Vicomte de Valmont stealing the show.
DL is based on the epistolary novel Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) by Choderlos de Laclos. It takes place in France during the last years of King Louis XVI’s reign, just before the French Revolution (begun in 1789). The screenplay by Christopher Hampton, which won an Academy Award, derives from his contemporary dramatic version. It was directed by the talented Stephen Frears, and it was filmed in and around magnificent French estates, such as the Château Maisons-Lafitte. James Acheson served as Costume Designer, and his haute couture deserves a shout-out. The dressing of the two principals Valmont and la Marquise de Merteuil at the beginning, shown via cross-cutting as they’re enveloped in their accouterments and finery by squadrons of attendants, intentionally parallels soldiers arming for battle:
A bizarre paper cone with gauze-covered eyeholes conceals Valmont’s face as the perruquier blows powder at his wig. As the powder drifts away, Valmont slowly lowers the cone and we see for the first time his intelligent and malicious features. Another angle shows the complete magnificent ensemble; or not quite complete, for Azolan now reaches his arms round Valmont’s waist to strap on his sword. (2s.d.)
Valmont is a suave, cunning rake: “he is conspicuously charming, [and] never opens his mouth without first calculating what damage he can do” (4). There’s something feline about the way he moves, which is quite ‘intriguing’ and as interesting as his affected, outwardly nonchalant line readings. The three leading ladies (with the actresses’ ages at the time of the film’s release in parentheses) are Glenn Close as la Marquise de Merteuil (41), Michelle Pfeiffer as Madame de Tourvel (30), and Uma Thurman as Cécile de Volanges (18; her character “is a demure fifteen-year-old blonde”). Besides being skilled thespians and very beautiful, another factor in their casting must have been that they all have ivory skin, pale blue eyes, and golden locks. And though each has at least one passionate meltdown moment, there’s an ‘ice queen’ quality they all share.
DL’s idle, refined, ultra-privileged characters spend their considerable time, energy, brainpower, and other resources plotting amongst themselves. Some of their favorite pastimes include, of course, arranging, setting up, and foiling intrigues, seductions, and other assorted erotic liaisons. In conjunction with these (dis)honorable pursuits, they engage wholeheartedly in manipulation, blackmail, and revenge; they write, receive, and intercept billets-doux; and they spread rumors and guard their reputations. In Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, primatologist Robin Dunbar contends that gossip is fundamental to the genesis of human speech and moreover integral to society. Anyone who remembers the savage jungle of high school will recall that it functions as a two-edged sword. On one side, it enforces collective judgment and acts as a conservative impediment to misbehavior. Ignoring propriety gets one talked about; thus, fear of infamy compels individuals to maintain the public norms of their peer group. But conversely it can operate as a Machiavellian tool useful for character assassination, subtle self-promotion, and the accrual of social capital. In general, and not unlike chimpanzees, the protagonists are engaged in an all-out fight for power and sexual access—the ability to control weaker parties and to get away with whatever they want. Yet all of the dramatis personae retain their subtlety and humanity, something rare among even quality Merchant-Ivory productions or the sharpest, glossiest American teen shows. They’re “round,” not just cleverly deployed chess pieces, and each has gaps in their understanding of social codes and others’ motives, as well as limits to their own self-awareness.
The gist of the story revolves around the seigneurial Valmont’s relationships with de Tourvel and Cécile; these affairs are of the utmost concern to la Marquise, and they strongly affect her attitude, feelings, and conduct towards him. The braininess, particularly of la Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont (who are ex-lovers and allies or antagonists depending on the circumstances of the moment), shine through during their repartee, which is razor-sharp (an overdetermined ironic adjective here, given how war-like be the battle of the sexes, and the duel that climaxes the action) as well as through their ability to delay gratification in pursuit of victory. La Marquise reveals how she managed to invent herself in a de facto policy speech to Valmont:
I had no choice, did I? I’m a woman. Women are obliged to be far more skillful than men. You can ruin our reputation and our life with a few well-chosen words. So of course I had to invent: not only myself but ways of escape no one has ever thought of. And I’ve succeeded, because I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own. … In the end, I distilled everything [I learned] down to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die. … When I want a man, I have him; when he wants to tell, he finds he can’t. That’s the whole story. (25-26)
It seems she has indeed distilled the wisdom of Machiavelli, Ovid, Freud, and all the other grandmasters of human foibles.
There is nothing new under the sun, and DL has its roots in other writings produced in the salons of Paris by las précieuses, and the coffeehouses of London by gallant wits, during (roughly) the Long Eighteenth Century. Two of its closer theatrical cousins, William Congreve’s scintillating Restoration play The Way of the World (1700), and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895-99) both, I think, have dialogue a bit more sparkly, but they are romantic comedies. The perfect catfight scene between Gwendolen Fairfax and Cecily Cardew in Wilde is so great because it is so deadpan hilarious, and likewise the pointed clever stichomythia in both is, ostentatiously, a labor of the playwright’s sprezzatura and artifice. In contrast, the tragic (or at least deadly) dénouement and nasty, cutting overall tone of DL seems to render it more “real”—though obviously very few people have actually lived like decadent French aristos during the Ancien Régime.
To return to themes of a cognitive nature, the understanding of “headology” is simply extraordinary, extending to internal ambivalence (“the battle between Love and Virtue,” to quote just one of the script’s Ovidian tropes), jealousy, meanness, and painful lessons. The phrase “It was beyond my control,” to take a key example, which could be trite, here contains a whole world of connaissances (knowledges), probably enough to merit its own essai in ultra-close reading. The depiction of oh so polite, oh so nasty competitiveness, particularly the female rivalry, is, again, pitch-black-perfect. For example, the piqued Merteuil has this to say about de Tourvel: “I see she writes as badly as she dresses” (63). The leads’ “Theory of Mind” is hyper-sensitive, but no one is omniscient nor omnipotent; even the central pair make mistakes, errors in judgment, and have plans go awry. To take one signal case, Valmont inadvertently falls in love with Madame de Tourvel, precipitating unhappy outcomes for several parties.
In an earlier brief, emblematic episode, Valmont knows that he is being spied on because he’s directed his servant Azolan to conduct an affair with Madame de Tourvel’s chambermaid Julie. Thus alerted, he allows himself to be surreptitiously observed extending much-needed financial assistance to a decent but down-on-his-luck peasant near his aunt’s estate who’s in arrears over taxes. He does this as part of his plot to seduce de Tourvel, who is known for (and who prides herself on being known for) her uncommon virtue and purity. She is also pulchritudinous, but Valmont’s ostensible motive is to earn renown for his Casanovan supremacy by winning her in spite of her principled resistance. He’s become a bit bored; he needs a major challenge.
Valmont: To seduce a woman famous for strict morals, religious fervour and the happiness of her marriage: what could possibly be more prestigious? … You see, I have no intention of breaking down her prejudices. I want her to believe in God and virtue and the sanctity of marriage and still not be able to stop herself. I want the excitement of watching her betray everything that’s most important to her. Surely you understand that. I thought betrayal was your favourite word.
Merteuil: No, no, cruelty: I always think that has a nobler ring to it. (7-8)
The manufactured act of charity succeeds as planned, earning Valmont favor in her eyes. In this chapter we have so much: the keen monitoring of others and their opinions, the attempts at deceit, the importance of reputation, the uses/abuses of kindness, the sheer “acting” involved (e.g. when Valmont pretends to be modestly discomfited and embarrassed when found out in de Tourvel’s presence). The segment ends when Valmont, in an aside, compliments his assistant Azolan for selecting an appropriate clan—a finely detailed, cynical twist of the knife: “I must say the family was very well chosen. Solidly respectable, gratifyingly tearful, no suspiciously pretty girls” (15).
A skeptic might suggest that the extreme mannerism and noticeable sterility permeating DL invalidates reading it in terms of evolutionary psychology. It is true that their society is flagrantly unproductive economically and biologically. Monsieur de Tourvel, who works in law, is never present, and the only pregnancy, accidental and illegitimate, ends in a miscarriage. Also, the one marriage arranged is not a love match (Cécile hasn’t even met her older husband-to-be, again, never seen), and the action centers around her illicit premarital sex life, which la Marquise arranges to settle a personal grudge by pre-cuckolding the fiancé: “His priority, you see, is a guaranteed virtue. … he’d get back from honeymoon to find himself the laughing-stock of Paris” (6-7). I would, nonetheless, suggest two items: first, the environment, free from mundane concerns, has unchained the characters to explore and indulge basic human instincts which are usually not so forefronted or played with quite so much ruthlessness. Paradoxically, the artifice permits the rawness. Second, the story can’t help but function as an implicit critique of their fundamentally unnatural, overly extravagant misbehavior. Audiences, I’d posit, impose such morals, regardless of intentions. Thus, the depravity and barrenness of their world do signal its degeneration; and of course, during the impending Revolution, emphatically signaling the end of Enlightenment in history, numerous nobles were fated to meet their end courtesy of the guillotine.
I’ve tried to suggest some of what makes DL such an ab-fab success. To reiterate, there’s an intrinsic pleasure in watching a superb storyteller present such nasty behavior, especially when it’s played with such élan and ferocity. This factor permits ready elucidation. There seems to be more going on, however, a quality that strains my critical vocabulary to impart. It’s an element entwined with the story itself, a simultaneous meta-criticism happening as we see things through the eyes of such savvy social players. To this reader, Beowulf, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and even The Simpsons (created by Matt Groening) share this feature—in part due to their ironic narrators (played by the camera in DL), plus an implication that we’re privileged viewers of life lessons of the utmost import. None of these texts, of course, should be reduced to didactic little morality plays, though, again, their involving conflicts (including the internal fights) play a part in their aesthetic achievement. To borrow a term from the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz, DL adds up to almost being a kind of “thick description,” a (fictional) ethnographical portrait of an Ancien Régime that was wicked fun while it lasted.
 See Frans de Waal, Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex among Apes, rev. ed. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1998); Richard Byrne and Andrew Whiten, eds., Machiavellian Intelligence: Social Expertise and the Evolution of Intellect in Monkeys, Apes, and Humans (Oxford: Clarendon, 1988); and Dario Maestripieri, Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007).
 Christopher Hampton, Dangerous Liaisons: The Film (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1989). Quotations will be referenced parenthetically to page numbers in this screenplay.
 Other versions of the novel have been filmed. Cf. “Cruel Intentions” (1999), which sets DL’s plot among upper-crust prepsters: this viewer found it tepid and disappointing after a promising opening. N.b. Swoosie Kurtz, who played Cécile’s mother in DL, has a clever intertextual cameo in CI.
 Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997). On “Sins of the Tongue,” see also M. Gluckman, “Gossip and Scandal,” Current Anthropology 4 (1963): 307-16; F. G. Bailey, Gifts and Poison: The Politics of Reputation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1971); Ralph Rosnow and Gary Fine, Rumor and Gossip: The Social Psychology of Hearsay (New York: Elsevier, 1976); Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York: Knopf, 1985); Robert Goodman and Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, eds., Good Gossip (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994); and Jerome Barkow, “Beneath New Culture Is Old Psychology: Gossip and Social Stratification,” in The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture, eds. Jerome Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 627-37.
 The unbelievable precociousness of these femmes fatale in training can be highly entertaining—witness the following recent teen black comedies: Mean Girls, Pretty Persuasion, Heathers, Election, Superbad, Wild Things, Clueless, Easy A, Brick, Assassination of a High School President, or St. Trinian’s, and their television derivatives: Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars, et al.
 N.b. I found a very brief note (about one paragraph) on gender and deception in DL from an evolutionary psychology p.o.v. by Prof. William Tooke on his blog (dated Aug. 12, 2009): www.darwingoestothemovies.blogspot.
 Valmont uses the expression “It’s the way of the world” (66); it is impossible to determine if an allusion to Congreve is intended. For that matter, the sincerity or sarcasm is difficult to judge when Mertuil states that Cécile’s income of “sixty thousand a year” plays no part in Bastide’s calculations—“None whatso-ever”—in his wishing to marry her (6).
 Besides this brief episode (“These days, my lord, you can find half a dozen [ruined families] like that, any village in the country,” 15), there is little in the way of socioeconomic criticism. It is perhaps noteworthy that Madame de Tourvel’s husband is away practicing law, indicating their bourgeoisie status, and the unobtrusive presence of myriad attendants is an obvious class marker. The historical irony of an idle elite on the verge of destruction from the masses below, is, from a modern vantage point, clear enough.
 I’m imagining specifically something like Beowulf in its original setting, performed by a bard for a receptive, illiterate band of Anglo-Saxon warriors, rather than later, literary editions/contexts far removed from the heroic pagan world of the comitatus.
 Honorable mention: period/costume dramas that capture the glamorous, refined atmosphere, crumbling mansions, restrictive social codes and all:
Shakespeare in Love
The Name of the Rose
The House of Mirth
La Princesse de Montpensier
I, The Worst of All (Yo, la mas peor)
The Tudors [multi-episode cable tv series]
Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen? (with Anne-Marie Duff?)
Sense and Sensibility (?)
- Michael A. Winkelman studied Chemistry at Kalamazoo College and received a Ph.D. in Renaissance English Literature from the Claremont Graduate University. He is the author of Marriage Relationships in Tudor Political Drama (2005) and A Cognitive Approach to John Donne’s Songs and Sonnets (2013). He has also written reviews and essays from a New Humanist perspective. He teaches at Owens Tech in Ohio.
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