The 1988 film is enshrouded by a classical music score that inspires a sense of danger and wonder. A woman's hand holds a letter with 18th century styled writing. The laced arm of a noble rises from underneath bountiful and silky bed covers, to reach for a handkerchief from a waiting tray as another servant brings forth a steaming hot drink. A hoop skirt is put into place. And so commences the toilette for two nobles, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. Perfumes, corsets, wigs, shoes, powder, among other details must be founded upon and strictly adhered to.
The innocent Cecile de Volanges and her watchful hen of a mother are at a visit to the Marquise. The budding daughter has recently come from a convent where she lived and was educated. A servant enters with a note upon a tray. It is to announce the arrival of Valmont. Madame de Volanges warns Cecile, who is dressed in white, while she and the Marquise sit as the daughter stands in a near servant like pose, that Valmont does not open his mouth unless he first calculates the damage he may do and all of this is part of a conspicuous charm.
Cecile inquires as to why he is then received. Her mother comments that everyone receives him. Valmont enters with the strolling grace of a cat only to bow and give a calculated smile.
The costumes are sublime though the jewelry looks as if it could be fake. And the puns begin as soon as sex enters the air which is immediately. Valmont stands next to Cecile and leans so that he is in direct lines eye with her breasts. Madame de Volanges states it is best that they leave and Cecile remarks, "I'm used to being in bed by nine at the convent."
"So, I should hope," the experienced Valmont replies. The Marquise rings a bell for a servant to see to their exit. And once the two are alone, the plotting begins. Both are hardened ends to the same crooked stick. The Marquise asks Valmont if he wonders why he was summoned there that evening. He replies that he hoped it would be for the pleasure of his company.
She says she needs something from him. And that is to seduce Cecile as the girl's future husband is the Marquise's old lover who left her for Valmont's fat mistress. But Valmont does not wish to ruin Cecile's life as he had other prey in mind. Madame de Tourvel is married and virtuous. Why not take her for a spin?
The Marquise lectures Valmont on how ridiculous it is to seduce a man's wife as there is little gain in a win and much humiliation in a loss. He argues that doing so is better than seducing a virgin who is bound to be curious as any one of a dozen men could manage it and he has his reputation to think of. Marquise allows him the benefit of a night with her if, he carries out plans and makes the evidence clear in writing.
Both ideas end up blossoming into a wicked flower. The method of engagement is partly based and perhaps depends on stalking. The extent to which nobles stalked each other is also brought about in the original novel that is comprised solely of letters. Servants are blackmailed into stealing letters, footmen are hired to follow on supposed hunts. When Madame de Tourvel flees the home of Rosemond, Valmont's aunt, he has a servant follow her and demands to know where she goes, what she eats and if she sleeps.
The novel brings about even more clearly how aggressive the men could be in following up with a soon to be conquest. And the film is also the prude version of the novel as in the original the first to deflower Cecile is the Marquise herself. The nobles really were hippies as they made love with absolute freedom, seemed to have no financial restraints much less worries and they lived in a dorm type of lifestyle.
But there is a catch to it all which is where the title comes from. The cinematic version alludes to protection during sex, but no one suffers physically from sex directly, except Cecile becomes pregnant and has a miscarriage and Madame de Tourvel quietly dies of a broken heart. In the novel it is alluded to that the Vicomte was a ground zero for an STD, perhaps syphilis. The reality of the original writing was that the Madame passed away a raving lunatic who could not seem to quench her thirst. The Marquise also became quite ill with a rash and was deformed by small pox.
Both forms of the story reveal how much games can ruin people's lives permanently. The Vicomte succumbs to Chevalier Danceny, a music instructor who is the lover of both Cecile and the Marquise, in a duel. Though there was a single victor the men did agree upon one thing: what they did was not to protect Cecile in any particular fashion. And in challenging Valmont to a duel and winning, the Chevalier gained control of all the poisonous letters that were soon to circulate about Paris.
By Sarah Bahl