Dangerous Liaisons is timeless. Written in 1782 by French army general Pierre Choderlos de Laclos – who also invented the modern artillery shell, which seems a useful metaphor for the way his novel detonated the morality of the time – the novel has been adapted for the stage and screen multiple times.
Depending on your age and taste, the most successful version has either been Stephen Frears’ 1988 film, which was based on Christopher Hampton’s play, or 1999’s Cruel Intentions, based on the box office draw of having Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe play sleazy step-siblings in modern-day New York.
The 2022 version, streaming weekly on Stan in Australia, isn’t a straight remake; call it Sexy French Schemers: The Early Years. Big hair, wigs and lots of powder set the scene, as does an opening tidbit of gossip about the Queen and a horse.
‘It’s scandalous the things being said these days,’ says one theatre-goer.
‘I know – but isn’t it delicious,’ says another.
Perhaps Gossip Girl: 1783 might have been a better title.
In a nod to the original novel’s epistolary form, rich and powerful women across Paris are writing letters praising the bedroom skills of the young Pascal Valmont (Australian Nicholas Denton). The map maker turned gigolo is currently reserving his true passion – or as close to it as he gets – for Camille (Alice Englert, Jane Campion’s daughter) a sex worker with big dreams. Star-crossed lovers making love on a giant map of Paris? Maybe not star-crossed, though the map does get a workout.
‘Marry me, Camille,’ Valmont says after a particularly energetic night out, ‘forsake all others’. But Camille has debts, and Valmont can’t pay them. Well, not until he swindles a title out of his current conquest, the formidable Marquise de Merteuil (a deliciously arch Lesley Manville). So while Camille confesses to her BFF Victoire (Kosar Ali) that she can’t go on working the streets while her heart belongs to Valmont, he’s got yet another reason to make sure his scheme comes off without a hitch.
Those familiar with Dangerous Liaisons in all its forms know all this rooftop snuggling and declarations of undying love only leads to heartbreak: Valmont will eventually become Vicomte de Valmont, while Camille will be the next Marquise de Merteuil, the pair of master game-players at the heart of the original.
The chemistry between the two is the real hook here, at least early on. While the series as a whole promises to set them apart more often than not, that early spark feels like a strong foundation for what’s to come. Dangerous Liaisons doesn’t work unless there’s a real tension between the two chief schemers; on that score at least, this version hits the mark.
Period dramas rarely go out of style but they do have styles of their own, and this is aiming for a tone that suggests, if not historical exactness, then at least moments of mud and muck. The costumes are fancy when required, but rarely flamboyant; much of the time they wouldn’t stand out thanks to lighting positioned at the Barry Lyndon end of the historically accurate illumination scale.
Candles by night, fog and mist by day. If they’re going for a metaphor for the morally murky world these aristocrats dwell in, it’s a blunt one, though the (literal) atmosphere it adds to proceedings is appreciated.
The problem is that once the focus moves beyond the young soon-to-be-ex couple’s immediate circle, everything fades. Supporting characters are just that, even when the plot relies on them. Their subplots and schemes lack heft, largely because those around them rarely seem important to the story or to them – which would be fine if this was a series more focused on the ex-lovers’ relationship, but the episodic nature of future instalments suggests it’ll provide the backbone of the series rather than its beating heart.
Maybe the fire between them will be enough. If we can’t have them together, both Denton and Englert give performances strong enough to carry the series on their own. By the end of the first episode Camille has entered Parisian high society (with the help of the Marquise de Merteuil), while Valmont’s schemes have come to naught – for now at least.
‘It’s either love or war; there is nothing in between,’ Camille says during the last scene they have together as lovers: hopefully the series realises there’s no dangerous thrill to be found sticking to the middle of the road.
Dangerous Liaisons is an eight-part series, with episodes arriving on Stan weekly.