Modern Languages and Literatures, Department of


Date of this Version

March 2003


Published in NEOHELICON 30:1 (2003), pp. 209–233; ISSN 0234–4652 © Akédemiai Kiadó, Budapest; Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht. Used by permission.


The calculus of objectifi cation and desire in both the novel and film versions of Choderlos de Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses is derived in two principal ways. The first derivation, that of the Sadean will to objectify the other for erotic and intellectual satisfaction, precedes the second, that of the overarching wish to produce a written object announcing the conquest of the human object. Limited by the medium, the film adaptations of the Liaisons dangereuses cannot place as great an emphasis on the composition of letters. Nevertheless, they make allusions to it in such a manner that underscores this type of objectification process. This article examines the film adaptations of Letter XLVIII, where Valmont, after sleeping with a mistress, composes a sardonic but unwittingly revealing missive to the Présidente de Tourvel. Specifically, it is this mise à nu of Valmont as a libertine in Letter XLVIII that commands the attention of filmmakers. I contend that Stephen Frears (Dangerous Liaisons, 1988), Milos Forman (Valmont, 1989) and Roger Vadim (Liaisons Dangereuses, 1960) choose to adapt this scene not only because of its presumable entertainment value, but because its visual exploitation allows for a quick, cogent means of highlighting, if not simplifying, the complex motif of sexual objectification as it relates to issues of power and libertinage. From the standpoint of film as it relates to the novel, what adaptations of this scene show is that the necessary representational departures from the novel still ingeniously depict the way in which language and sex conspire to create and destroy Valmont and Merteuil’s libertine universe. The scene becomes especially useful when considering questions of cinematic variation because each director’s rendition serves as a microcosm of his version of Laclos’s text. Consequently, viewing what I will call the “writing table scene,” provides a summary of Frears’s, Forman’s and Vadim’s interpretive style. In addition, the scene, as represented in the films, gives a modern commentary on female libertinage. Laclos’s novel suggests that female libertinage has no chance of validation, let alone survival. By contrast, twentieth-century filmmaking seems to compensate by presenting scenarios which intimate that the will, pleasure, and intellect of female libertinage—if they cannot win—can at least live on or manifest themselves in some form beyond that of their creator, Merteuil. All the films emphasize the development of Cécile as a libertine who, with varying degrees of success, will carry on Merteuil’s legacy.