Towards Better Democracy

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Just Dangerous or Distinctly Lethal?

Over the years I have seen many theatre productions of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ master work, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, read more than one full translation of the novel, and seen both Steven Frears’ film version, which uses Christopher Hampton’s script, and Milos Forman’s film version.

None of these prepare you for Hampton’s script of Dangerous Liaisons.

Stripped of the movement and motion of a stage production, of the light and colour of film, and of the intervening narrative passages of the book, one is left face to face with the two central characters who prowl round each other like caged tiger and lion in ever tightening circles.

No fang or claw is left unbared. No snide remark held back. No sarcasm masked.

This is chess played with bloodsucker pieces. The poisonous Queen of Marquise de Merteuil playing against the almost equally poisonous Knight (Rook) of Vicomte de Valmont.

They hiss and slither across the finely wrought board of the aristocratic life in which each is so intensely entwined. The other characters are pawns in the play of the two ex-lovers.

At the same time, the two, Merteuil and Valmont, play the pieces on their board like perverse chess-players, playing not to win but to inflict damage.

In this game, the winner will happily drown with the loser, just as long as the loser drowns. This is a chess game out of Dante’s Hell.

And the reader is held close enough by Christopher Hampton’s script to sense the quiver of Valmont’s nostrils as he gives yet another thrust.

Hampton has stripped the novel to its essentials. Only the naked muscles of the novel’s workings are left to us.

We are held so close to the action of the play we are hypnotized by the smell of Merteuil’s rouge and powder as she oils yet another barb.

The artificiality of each of their lives is not stiff but has the suppressed, compressed power of a huge, tightly coiled spring. They each take turns to tighten the coil.

Who will be first to release the ratchet and allow the spring to release in an instant of almost unimaginable power?

This is backlash so swift as to be all but imperceptible in its movement. Equally though, as great as is the speed of the uncoiling spring, is the power of the spring unleashed.

The tension tightens and tightens, notch upon notch. Morality is stretched thinner and thinner to breaking point.

Merteuil. “That’s enough!”

(All of them, even Merteuil herself, are startled by the sharpness of this involuntary remark.
Merteuil hastens to paper over the crack, by adding a quiet explanation …)

“I think we should respect the sensibilities of our friend.” [p113]

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

When Merteuil finally triumphs, it is with the gallows laugh of the hangman. Today, Valmont’s neck is severed upon the block.

Does tomorrow for Merteuil start with a fresh round with some other ex-lover?

Or does tomorrow bring for her a series of endless tomorrows, where her wails of remorse, of loss, of longing, sheel and screech fit to drown out all other sound?

Is, finally, Merteuil’s grief every bit as utterly stupendous as were the sheer wanton acts of cruelty that Merteuil and Valmont stupefyingly inflicted upon each other?

If this was, during the course of the action, the sight of morals unleashed, this then, at the end, is truly the sound of retribution.

Posted 20 October 2010 as a review of Christopher Hampton’s script version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos at

Filed under: Memoir, , , , ,

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