By Melody Stewart
Where to stream it? STARZ
Starring: Alice Englert, Nicholas Denton, Lesley Manville, Kosar Ali, Carice van Houten, Hilton Pelser, Fisayo Akinade, Michael McElhatton, Nathanael Saleh, Colette Dalal Tchantcho, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Tom Wlaschiha
Created By: Harriet Warner
Probably the most notable adaptation of the many adaptations of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th Century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses is the 1988 American movie with Glen Close and John Malcovich. Anyone over forty will recall the seductive games played by the French nobility and the disastrous consequences for their hearts.
But now there is a modern television series set to retell the story of love, betrayal, and survival. What makes this story so ageless? I believe it’s the eternal struggle of life on earth and the desire we all have to rise above it through love.
The new STARZ television adaptation marks the latest endeavor to share this story with a young audience. The story begins with our two main characters Pascal Valmont, a disinherited noble turned mapmaker played by Nicholas Denton, and Camille, a young prostitute played by Alice Englert, living in squalor in Paris. Falling in love isn’t enough for young Valmont, he must secure his rightful fortune, one way or another, whether it be by begging his stepmother for some small amount of money to buy land of his own, or by seducing older, married women in hopes of blackmailing them out of a title somehow.
He’s been busy, to say the least! While working these angles he’s also fallen in love with Camille, a young girl forced into prostitution in the form of indentured servitude to Madame Jericho. She has no idea about his relationships with other women and that’s a recipe for disaster when her friend and maid at the brothel finds the letters he’s been blackmailing the married women with. All three of them want to escape their wretched lives but only one sets in motion a plan that might actually work.
How This Series is Different From the Book (and 1988 Movie)
Firstly, the villain, at least in the first episode is Valmont and he is not motivated by a silly bet to seduce an innocent girl but by a desire to have what he believes is rightfully his. His “love” for Camille is icing on the cake. His efforts to blackmail Madame Merteuil for a title backfire quickly while his lover Camille decides to take her future into her own hands with the help of the betrayed Madame Merteuil.
In short, his troubles have only just begun. Now he has not one but two scorned lovers and more to follow. A broken heart is more than enough motivation for revenge and I have a feeling that what goes around is going to come around for young Valmont.
The series explores the classes and how they relate to one another. Rather than a grand scheme of Madame Merteuil perpetrated on others of the same station, Camille and Madame Merteuil become partners in a way. While Camille is technically blackmailing her, Madame Merteuil sympathizes with the emotional pain Camille feels. These two women, at least in the first episode deal with each other honestly. It’s all they really have in a world where their security lies in the hands of men.
It Could Be Better
The first episode does have a few problems. While its lush production values have spared no detail in portraying an accurate 18th-century France, the story itself feels rushed. Valmont and Camille are clearly in love but we don’t know how they got there and how he came to the decision to sleep with married women to gain a title. We haven’t seen enough backstory or context for the characters’ decisions. Because we have no foundation on which to understand the characters’ motivations our judgments are superficial, allowing for no true empathy.
Camille would be the only exception to that rule. It’s easy for anyone to understand her feelings of betrayal and the misery in her life. Who hasn’t lost a love? Who wouldn’t feel the same?
Valmont’s feeble attempt at gaining something, anything from his stepmother doesn’t help us feel for him. Instead, he pompously announces that what she has belongs to him and she must hand over something to get him started in life. I’m amazed that a man so adept at seducing women can’t pull off a better plan to extract something from a woman. He should know better than most.
He seems like a petulant child and she, an obvious gold-digger. The dialogue was ripe with opportunity for a richer scene but the actors did not take this chance to deepen our understanding. It was merely a scene to advance the storyline. The director shot this quickly with static blocking and a telenovela style given to the once-good dialogue.
What Happens Next?
Well, I can only say that I am looking forward to the next episode airing next Sunday, November 13th. My excitement lies in seeing Valmont’s expression when he finds that Camille has been taken in by Madame Merteuil. Everyone’s lives are about to change. I’m just hoping that for Camille and her loyal friend Victoire it’s for the better. If anyone deserves some happiness, it’s them. We’ll just have to wait to see if being deserving is all it takes. I’m just guessing that it’s not.