Oh, yes. I am ALL up on the Liaisons Dangereuses; it’s one of those things I’ll follow anywhere adaptation-wise. My relationship with it is complicated. You see: the Marquise de Merteuil exists. (Enough said, wrt guaranteeing my allegiance.) Valmont/Merteuil exists, and is the locus of the text. (But also that. Gamesmanship of near-equals that is secretly about him being in awe of her and the universes of depravity she contains, cold calculation of each other to block out the fact that they feel for each other the one thing that doesn’t compromise the perfect coded codelessness of their lives.) I encountered them when I was like ten, I was ruined in approx. zero time forever no matter what. Like I had a choice.
But there are caveats. Merteuil exists, unabashedly cruel to jawdropping extremes but also textually a weapon shaped by the conditions of her time: the model woman of the period, soul rotten because the period’s rotten, a creature of necessity honed into a blade by the cruelty of the game into which she was born. But then: Merteuil exists, in-text, to get comeuppance. Her male foil, Valmont, gets redeemed by the love of a good woman—saved from Merteuil’s grasp by a woman who exists more or less as an entity designed to indict Merteuil’s sharpness, her sybaritism—while she is punished by her peers, her fellow gamesmen. She loses the game because she must lose the game, she must be punished for playing it so well when it’s this intrinsically cruel a game, but because she’s such a good gameswoman there’s no way to accomplish this except by crippling her and publicly humiliating her. She doesn’t get Villain comeuppance, she gets Improper Woman comeuppance. I’m not going to bitch out Choderlos de Laclos for writing a feminine dichotomy in the 18th century, when society was writing the SHIT out of a feminine dichotomy, hi, but it’s fucking tough to stomach. Not that she gets punished, but the specific terms by which it’s done, and the division with which the text treats her v. how it treats Valmont.
(And then you get people reworking it, updating it, whatever, and keeping the terms of the ending, and I’m sorry, no. Cruel Intentions is cinematic mastery tbh but also it is bullshit. Who watches that and isn’t at least a little—but hopefully a lot, if we’re going to get along—on team Kathryn? And we’re grateful when she gets humbled for her bitchcuntslutwhoring when her rakehell brotherlover gets to be a martyr? THANKS BUT.)
Anyway, all this is to say, my allegiance is secretly but forever with the theatrical adaptation, which does something breathtakingly smart with the ending that has fixed me forever. So: penultimate scene, Valmont dies, you know how it goes. Mixed blessing on his lips, tangled names of the two women he loves, ambiguous resigned heroism. Final scene: Merteuil, Mme. de Volanges, and Mme. de Rosemonde are sitting around their card table, discussing his death. Merteuil in obvious restrained pain (her victory: the ultimate in self-defeating), the other two women discussing his affair with Tourvel and Tourvel’s romantic~ death after its end. Rosemonde insinuates something about a Telling Letter from Danceny, but that’s all we get in terms of potential gossip bombs that could blow up in Merteuil’s face—instead, she averts that turn of the conversation and ends the play, apparently still settled in her social position, with the line: “We must continue with the game.”
Lights low. Spotlight on the shadow of a guillotine. Curtain.
This is my favorite because she wins, and she gets the kingdom she deserves, right at the moment of its destruction. She’s the embodiment of why it needs destruction: she deserves it, deserves this, gets to be the whole era in apotheosis, gets a victory that’s going to destroy her from within for the rest of her life, and gets a very short life. The punishment’s the future: the axe just waiting to fall. The punishment’s the victory she’s enacted on herself, literally killing the one thing she loved, taking the one man for whom she could feel things on her own terms and accidentally immortalizing him (her nearest equal in debauch and gamesmanship) in romantic purety. (She made that narrative, she has to live with the perpetual narrativization of it into that now that he’s dead. Also: she made the narrative from within, not the text from without. The dichotomy? It’s the fault of its makers.) And also literally she wins a kingdom that’s about to fall. It’s the ultimate hollow victory. So it’s comeuppance, but it’s fairhanded. There’s no humiliation in it. (No relish from her peers, who aren’t—textually!—any morally better, not the Volanges and Rosemondes at least; they’re just worse at the game.) Much better: there’s blood.
SO LIKE, FUCK A SMALLPOX AND SOCIAL DISGRACE. I am not sure if you could even accomplish this in a novel but also, whatever @ the novel, tbh. Having seen it in many forms, I think it’s best suited to being a play*, to being performances within performances enacted upon bodies. The novel itself? Well, I’d like to read it in French, but I suspect it loses something in translation. English-wise, I’ll take the Hampton forever.
*Not a musical. (No, REALLY, A THING I HAVE SEEN, IT DID NOT GO WELL, FRIENDS.)