Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

26 April 2013

Les Liaisons Dangereuses

It's Dangerous Liaisons set in 1930s Shanghai!

What this means first of all is beautiful, expensive costumes (by Miggy Cheng). The production design, the dresses, the suits, a sumptuous scene at the Chinese opera: these are all exquisitely rendered.

The acting, too, is uniformly excellent, with a fun and humane lead performance by the Korean actor Jang Dong-gun (The Promise, The Coast Guard, Tae Guk Gi) and really superb performance by Zhang Ziyi (Crouching Tiger, Hero, 2046, House of Flying Daggers). I have not always loved her work (Memoirs of a Geisha is a particular stain on my memory), but here she is just so good! She plays the Michelle Pfeiffer role – the respectable woman who is seduced by the lothario and ends up falling for him. The director, Hur Jin-ho, makes this role much bigger than it is in the Stephen Frears version, and one can understand why with this beautiful performance at the film's center.

Zhang Ziyi is fascinating in this.
The camerawork and direction in this Dangerous Liaisions are much less impressive, and the CGI which recreates the 1930s city, skyline, and port is nowhere near as successful as the beautiful costumes and production design are. Hur Jin-ho, too, focuses on the morality of the Dangerous Liaisons tale, aligning the moral positions he dislikes with conspicuous wealth and the moral positions with which he identifies as either impoverished or showing great sympathy to the poor. I find this kind of easy moralizing Manichaeistic and therefore unimaginative (i.e. boring).

But, then, the truth is that I wind up disappointed at every version of Dangerous Liaisons I've ever seen. Because I want the story to end differently, but no one ever rewrites the thing the way I want to see it. This is my fault, of course, and not the fault of the original novel's author (Pierre Choderlos de Laclos). He was writing in the 18th century and all. I get that. But I detest the novel's moral point of view. I find it facile and (actually) a little idiotic, and it surprises me that no one has thought to revise the novel's ending completely when adapting it for the screen.

The story (if you haven't seen Cruel Intentions) is that two experienced cynics make a bet that involves ruining a respectable lady as well as thwarting the love-plans of two young people (who are basically pawns in the game, though they have no idea). At the end, the male protagonist is killed by the female protagonist, and then she (usually) weeps or is in some way shown to be sad about what she has done. In some versions (Cruel Intentions and the 1988 Liaisons), the female protagonist also gets some kind of comeuppance.

Jang Dong-gun wears a suit like this in every scene. And wears it well.
Why must the protagonist die? I don't mind so much that he falls in love, that he abandons his principles, that he loses the bet. But when he decides at the end that he will destroy his rival, he isn't even given a chance to do that. She is so much more powerful than he and always was, and he was always just her tool. But why hasn't anyone any pity for him?

We're supposed to have pity for the two young people (who are both outrageously stupid in every version I've ever seen); we're supposed to want them to be together even though they both do things just as "bad" as the protagonists. Why should we pity them and not the protagonists? The answer, I think, is because the young people are stupid. Because they don't know any better, because they are immature, because they act out of love and hurt instead of out of cynicism and calculation.

But I say that that is ridiculous. I have pity on the cynics, too. And even more, I admire the bet itself and the skill with which it is accomplished. I envision a version of Les Liaisons where the protagonists get what they want. Where they form a union (tenuous, perhaps, but isn't that interesting too?) or have a brief affair and then grow bored of one another. Or even where they agree to go their separate ways. I'd be equally happy with, say, a version where the male protagonist actually gets to live with his respectable girlfriend and make some kind of life without being killed. Something. Anything. I've been watching versions of this story for years and they always end the same.

Have pity, I say, on the villains.