Saturday, September 10, 2016
Effete, aggressive elocution
These were the best three words I could come up with to describe John Malkovich's particular speaking style in Dangerous Liaisons, a favorite movie of mine that I had not watched since the 1990s, for no good reason except a lack of availability. I never seem to see it in libraries, and in fact, when I did finally watch it again last night, I had to rent it from iTunes.
I had a little trepidation when I started to watch it, as you do with any cherished movie you are mildly concerned will not live up to the lofty standards you assigned it many years ago. Fortunately, I quickly realized I didn't have to worry about that with Stephen Frears' 1988 best picture nominee. Before long I was luxuriating in Christopher Hampton's cleverly nasty dialogue, just as I always had.
Much of that clever nastiness belongs to Malkovich. I'm pretty sure this was my first exposure to the actor, and what an exposure. He commands the screen like few others in this movie -- like few others in this movie, but like few other actors do in their own movies, period. It's not just those intricate linguistic gymnastics that make him sound like he's finely carving up a dictionary with a scalpel. It's also the intent and the intensity of that stare, which might make a person look away as they would the sun. He lacerates with both his tongue and his eyes.
In past viewings I had recognized Malkovich's Vicomte de Valmont as essentially loathsome, so obviously a person of brusque manners and no delicacy that I always wondered why Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer) would ever fall for him. But this time I decided that his unmistakable magnetism might be transferable with charm. Or perhaps, his brand of charm was so different than the bland politeness of other society men that it might entrance a person. Or simply, women often fall for the bad boy.
One thing that makes his style of speaking so memorable is that it's Malkovich's own voice, not the British accent so regularly used in period pieces regardless of where they're set. Of course, Malkovich speaks so "fancily" that one might mistake his ordinary speaking voice with the equivalent of what Madonna does when she tries to sound British, but that's just the proof that he's so well suited for the part. All of the actors use their own speaking voices, but they just try to make them a tad ... "fancier." Interestingly, the choice to use normal speaking voices was repeated in Milos Forman's take on the material the following year, called Valmont, a film I greatly disliked. When I reviewed that movie for AllMovie about 15 years ago, I wrote "No one in either film speaks the novel's native French, but at least Frears opted for high-minded dialogue and sophisticated accents, both genre staples. Forman inexplicably favors a looser, less poetic, more American vernacular staging of events, and cast members Fairuza Balk and Meg Tilly are unfortunate byproducts of that decision." I guess Uma Thurman and Michelle Pfeiffer are just better with "fancy" American accents than Balk and Tilly.
I don't suppose I have any really new interpretations of this film from my most recent viewing. I did, however, wonder about the validity of a previous interpretation ... which I suppose could be a new interpretation.
In one of the final scenes, Glenn Close's Marquise de Merteuil tears up her chamber in a fit of weeping hysterics, then screams at her attendants to get out as she collapse to her knees, wracked with sobs. I had always interpreted this as sorrow over the death of Valmont, who she secretly still loves (or perhaps not so secretly, since she admits as much to him).
However, this time I wondered if she values her position in society so much that the actual circulation of her damning letters would be enough to reduce her to this state. After all, she must have figured that a consequence of revealing to Danceny that Valmost was sleeping with Cecile would be that Danceny would come after Valmont and try to kill him. But perhaps she was so many layers removed from reality, and considered both herself and Valmont so indestructible, that the only outcome she imagined of a Danceny-Valmont duel was the death of Danceny (which she also wanted, feeling spurned by him). And then there's always "don't know what you've got until it's gone" ... which I suppose could apply both to Valmont and to her public shaming.
Which do you think it is?