Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Liaisons (1988) - Supporting Actress Sundays

This week's Supporting Actress profile brings us to a vicious, cruel, internecine narrative of deceit and betrayal. Little wonder this quaint little portrait of emotional sadism been enduringly popular for centuries, having been retold and reinvented in so many many ways. And though the blithely conventional 1988 U.S. version is hardly my favorite (that honor belongs to the delicious 1999 adaptation), Stephen Frears's frilm does boast a few minutes of sheer transcendent brilliance at the very end, as well as the official arrival to "Serious Actressness" of one of the greater leading ladies of the last two decades...

approximately 31 minutes and 57 seconds
31 scenes
roughly 27% of film's total running time

Dangerous Liaisons stages a high society world in which erotic conquests are a form of sport: the more elusive the prey, the more victorious the triumphant predator. In this milieu, Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madame Marie de Tourvel, the married woman with a revered reputation for righteous moral rectitude.

Mme Tourvel's renowned virtue, in tandem with her extraordinary beauty, marks her an especial target for the lascivious gamesmanship of the viscount Valmont (John Malkovich, in a decorously sleazy gem of a performance), a notorious rake who stakes his reputation on the difficulty of his conquests.

Pfeiffer's Mme Tourvel is to be a crowning accomplishment for Malkovich's Valmont, a prize that will both secure his reputation as reigning cocksman and also (re)gain his access to the private graces of the Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close, in a perfectly calibrated portrait of refined desperation).

In Mme Tourvel, Pfeiffer is charged with what is perhaps the most difficult role in Dangerous Liaisons: the only character in the piece who is intrinsically good. Mme Tourvel is neither naif nor cynic, neither stupid nor especially smart. She's alert to the workings of the world, but has chosen -- out of either integrity or self-preservation -- to avoid any whiff of sordidness in her life. Most fatally, Mme Tourvel is utterly incapable of guile amidst a social economy riven with casual deceits and intimate manipulations. And this unsophistication proves her ruin.

Playing "good" is never particularly easy, and Pfeiffer struggles somewhat in the role. Pfeiffer's Mme Tourvel captures the character's incandescence -- the radiant beauty which is to be a beacon of the beauty within. Likewise, Pfeiffer nails Mme Tourvel's exhilaration and terror at the thrill of being caught so within Valmont's magnetic sights.

But where Pfeiffer falters is in conveying the precise nature of Mme Tourvel's fear: Is she afraid of succumbing to true erotic sensation? Of losing her identity to the unknown? Of sacrificing the reputation she's so carefully built? Of discovering that true love is a lie? Each of these terrors flicker in Pfeiffer's performance...but fleetingly. Because Mme Tourvel's goodness is so strong, so clear, the role requires similar specificity in conveying its corruption. The glimmering melange of terrors that Pfeiffer provides, unfortunately, muddies Mme Tourvel at her most essential moments.

And while Mme Tourvel's love does break Valmont's heart, in the way that Valmont's abuse of her love broke Mme Tourvel's spirit, the fact that Pfeiffer doesn't really clue us into the precise nature of her sacrifice ends up cheapening the character. Was Mme Tourvel's incandescent goodness really so frail as that? Such ambiguity may be a failing of the piece (though the script does suggest that Mme Tourvel believes her beauty to be a moral challenge from God), but its lack of specificity becomes Pfeiffer's failure in performance.

When first screening Dangerous Liaisons upon its original release, Pfeiffer thrilled me, her beautiful devastation a heartbreaking spectacle. And Pfeiffer's depiction Tourvel's stunning evisceration remains moving. YET. While Pfeiffer's work abundantly conveys that Tourvel has lost everything when Valmont rebukes her, I'm left wondering what Tourvel's "everything" was...

Pfeiffer's nomination is clearly worthy, but the performance is -- just as clearly -- incomplete.


Cinebeats said...

Sadly, I can't even remember Pfeiffer in this due to Glenn Close and John Malkovich's amazing performances. She was dwarfed by their talents in my opinion.

qta said...

At the risk of facing the wrath of a certain Pfenatic that I adore over at TFE... I really have to agree with you here Stinky. She does fine, adequate work here.... work the certainly deserved a nomination... but I think others have done much more with the same role (namely Reese Witherspoon who blew me away in Cruel Intentions).


notice how quiet i'm being.

i have the patience of a saint