Choderlos de Laclos' 18th century novel is a monument to lust, guilt and duplicity, written in letter form. One of the film's enormous strengths is scriptwriter Christopher Hampton's decision to go back to the novel, and save only the best from his play. Frears, under commercial pressure but also determined to start afresh, has chosen American actors for the main roles: Malkovich as the professional philanderer Valmont; Close as the sadistic aristocrat with whom he plots to ruin both a social union and a virtuous woman (Pfeiffer, splendid). The result is a sombre, manipulative affair in which the décor is never allowed to usurp our interest. Broader, nastier even than the play, it uses recurring epistolary motifs, shadow and close-up to convey the themes of the piece: the relationships between pleasure and pain, our inability to control others, our endless desire to do so. Malkovich's final demise, run through, wasted and resigned, recalls the misty-eyed days of Fairbanks and Flynn; while Close, all eye-contact, front, and self-possession, ends the film unforgettably as a sacrificial lamb on the altar of decency.
Cast and crew