Les Liaisons dangereuses, one of the most scandalous novels of all time, is a French epistolary novel by Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes by Durand Neveu from March 23, 1782. It is celebrated for its exploration of seduction, revenge, and human malice. The novel is often claimed to be the source of the saying “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, a paraphrased translation of “La vengeance est un plat qui se mange fraud”.
It is in the world of feature film that Laclos’s diabolical characters have been most memorably portrayed. The screenplay for Dangerous Liaisons (1988), directed by Stephen Frears, was adapted from the stage play by Christopher Hampton. Frears’s sharp, elegant drama stars a masterfully evil Glenn Close as the sinister Marquise de Merteuil. Close shares brilliant chemistry with John Malkovich as the snake-like Vicomte de Valmont. Michelle Pfeiffer radiates purity as Madame de Tourvel, and a young Uma Thurman rounds out the group as Cecile de Volanges. Set in stunning French chateaus and shot with polished camerawork, the film was nominated for seven Academy Awards; it won for art direction, costume design, and adapted screenplay.
The teensploitation flick Cruel Intentions (1999) brings Laclos’s novel to the world of jaded Manhattan prep school students. It features Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathryn Merteuil and Ryan Phillippe as her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont. Kathryn promises to have sex with her stepbrother if he can deflower the sniveling Cecile Caldwell, entertainingly played by Selma Blair. Sebastian agrees, but also sets his eye on the self-righteous prude Annette Hargrove, played by Reese Witherspoon. Slick and melodramatic, the movie by writer-director Roger Kumble is an innovative twist on Laclos’s story.