Dangerous Liasons is one of those novels (and subsequently, films) that seems to have absolutely no redeeming value whatsoever. It is a story about wicked people attempting to destroy one another in a complicated series of “games.” The story primarily revolves around the wicked Valmont, a notorious seducer, and his partner-in-crime, Isabelle. Once one of the most notorious couples in society, now separated but still “interested” in one another, they collaborate (and also sabotage one another) in order to ruin reputations and cast a shroud of scandal over innocent parties.
Isabelle, furious at the fact that her former lover is about to marry an innocent from a convent, desires Valmont to seduce the young woman to humiliate her former lover. Valmont thinks that is too easy; he is much more interested in corrupting the virtuous Madame de Tourvel. Isabelle does not believe he can accomplish this given his scurrilous reputation and Madame de Tourvel’s strict religious standards, so she makes him a promise — their physical relationship will resume if he succeeds, but he must obtain written proof first. Thus begins a sick and twisted game of manipulation that is all rather horrific when you stop to think about it. (I sometimes wonder if the writers behind the television series Gossip Girl gained their inspiration from this story — rich, spoiled people conspiring to ruin one another.)
Most literature and films conceal the villain’s true motives in order to mystify and mislead the audience, so in that respect this is an unusual approach to the material. Instead of being a secondary villain, Valmont is the main character and the audience spends the most time with him, watching as he lays clever plans to capture Madame de Tourvel. We experience the full dread of watching a rabbit go too near a snare as he lures her in with pretty words, carefully-arranged acts of charity, and constant appeals for her friendship and for her to “lead him from his wicked ways.” Valmont is never in any instance likable, nor even attempts to be. He is merciless in his lies, his deceptions, his physical advantage over the women in his life, and unrepentant about his behavior, although toward the end he begins to experience small twinges of guilt. It is not merely his immorality that impacts us with its stark nature, but the fact that he is evil. It’s not just about sexual conquests, it’s about manipulating women into them and destroying them with it later. He is not content merely to seduce Madame de Tourvel, but then to allow her to see his true nature in order for her to understand how she has been duped.
I once heard a woman tell me quite honestly that friends do not impact us, or change our way of thinking and as long as you are strong in Christ, they cannot lead you astray. I beg to differ. Who you choose to associate with and listen to makes all the difference — that much is apparent in this story, where little Cecile chooses to confide in Isabelle, who intentionally leads her astray. Likewise, for all her protestations and pleas for Valmont to leave her alone, Madame de Tourvel did not do the one thing that might have saved her in the end — leave. She begins as a virtuous, religious woman and in the end is on her deathbed, stricken with self-loathing, guilt, and misery for having had her heart broken. I know from personal experience that friends make all the difference in our lives. Madame de Tourvel did not surround herself with virtuous people, who might have assisted her in avoiding temptation. Likewise, Valmont and Isabelle were not good for one another, and contributed to one another’s destruction.
Scripture warns us against these evils, but it is not like evil to be bold in its methods. Evil is like Valmont. It comes in the form of something beautiful that is hideous underneath. It convinces us of its good intentions and then when we are weak and vulnerable, turns on us and reveals the depth of our mistake. Evil is alluring and charming until you see it for what it is, and then it is horrific and harmful. It can slip into our lives in the form of something seemingly innocent, or it can walk into our parlors in the guise of a friend in need of saving. One must be careful in all things and cautious when it comes to our associations, for the nature of a man can be seen in the quality of their friends.