Les Liaisons dangereuses  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Liaisons dangereuses (disambiguation)

Les Liaisons dangereuses (Dangerous Liaisons) is a famous French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in 1782.

The book fascinates with its dark undertones. It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals who use sex as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, all the while enjoying their cruel games. It also depicts the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution; thus it is seen as a work that exposes the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime.

The book is an epistolary novel, composed entirely of letters written by the various characters to each other. In particular, the letters between Valmont and the Marquise drive the plot, with those of other characters serving as illustrations to give the story its depth.

The story has been adapted as a film several times—notably in 1988 as Dangerous Liaisons, directed by Stephen Frears, in 1989 as Valmont, directed by Miloš Forman with screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière, and in 1999 as Cruel Intentions, written and directed by Roger Kumble.

The novel is often claimed to be the origin of the saying "Revenge is a dish best served cold". However the expression does not actually occur in the original novel.


Plot summary

The Vicomte de Valmont is determined to seduce the virtuous (and married) Madame de Tourvel, who is living with Valmont's aunt while Monsieur de Tourvel is away for a court case. At the same time, the Marquise de Merteuil is determined to corrupt the young Cécile de Volanges, whose mother has only recently brought her out of a convent to be married to a former lover of Merteuil. Cécile falls in love with the Chevalier Danceny (her music tutor) and Merteuil and Valmont pretend to want to help the secret lovers in order to gain their trust, so that they can use them later in their own schemes.

Merteuil suggests that the Vicomte seduce Cécile in order to exact her revenge on Cécile's future husband. Valmont refuses as he wants to devote himself to seducing Madame de Tourvel. Merteuil promises Valmont that if he seduces Madame de Tourvel and provides her with written proof, she will spend the night with him. He expects rapid success, but does not find it as easy as his many other conquests. During the course of his pursuit, he discovers that Cécile's mother has written to Madame de Tourvel about his bad reputation. He avenges himself in seducing Cécile as Merteuil had suggested. In the meantime, Merteuil takes Danceny as a lover.

By the time Valmont has succeeded in seducing Madame de Tourvel, it is clear he has fallen in love with her. Jealous, Merteuil tricks him into breaking up with Madame de Tourvel — and reneges on her promise of spending the night with him. In response Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, thus abandoning Merteuil. Merteuil declares war on Valmont, as such she reveals to Danceny that Valmont seduced Cécile.

Danceny and Valmont duel. Valmont is fatally wounded, but before he dies he is reconciled with Danceny, giving him the letters proving Merteuil's own involvement. Two of these are sufficient to ruin her health and her reputation, and she flees the country. Furthermore, her face is left permanently scarred by her illness, and so she loses her greatest asset: her beauty. But the innocent still suffer: hearing of Valmont's death, Madame de Tourvel succumbs to a fever, while Cécile returns to the convent.

Literary significance and criticism

Les Liaisons dangereuses is celebrated for its exploration of seduction, revenge, and human malice, presented in the form of fictional letters collected and published by a fictional author. 'The book wasn't viewed as scandalous at the time of its publications, though the real intentions of the author remain unknown. It has been suggested that Laclos's intention was the same as that of his fictional author in the novel; to write a morality tale about the corrupt, squalid nobility of the Ancien Régime. However, this theory has been questioned on several grounds. In the first place, Laclos enjoyed the patronage of France's most senior aristocrat - the duc d'Orléans. Secondly, all the characters in the story are aristocrats, including the virtuous heroines - Madame de Tourvel and Madame du Rosemonde. Finally, many ultra-royalist and conservative figures enjoyed the book, including Queen Marie-Antoinette, which suggests that - despite its scandalous reputation - it was not viewed as a political work until the events of the French Revolution years later made it appear as such, with the benefit of hindsight.

Wayland Young in Eros Denied notes that most critics have viewed the work as

... a sort of celebration, or at least a neutral statement, of libertinism... pernicious and damnable... Almost everyone who has written about it has noted how perfunctory are the wages of sin...

He argues, however, that

... the mere analysis of libertinism… carried out by a novelist with such a prodigious command of his medium... was enough to condemn it and play a large part in its destruction.


The novel was adapted by the German playwright Heiner Müller in 1981, entitled Quartet. The novel has also been made into a play by Christopher Hampton which opened on London's West End and later crossed over to Broadway with Alan Rickman originating the role of the Vicomte de Valmont, Lindsay Duncan as Marquise de Merteuil, and Juliet Stevenson as Tourvel. It has also been adapted into various other media, under many different names.




  • An eight-part adaptation of the novel was broadcast as BBC Radio 4's "Woman's Hour Drama" (20-30 July 1992). It starred Juliet Stevenson, Samuel West, Melinda Walker, Diana Rigg, and Roger Allam.
  • A two-part presentation of Christopher Hampton's play by BBC World Service in 1998. It starred Ciaran Hinds (Vicomte de Valmont), Lindsay Duncan (Marquise de Merteuil), and Emma Fielding (Mme. de Tourvel). It won the Grand Award for Best Entertainment Program at the New York Radio Festival.



  • In 2008, the Alberta Ballet performed a ballet version of Dangerous Liaisons


  • A Factory of Cunning (2005, ISBN 0 316 72928 0) by the English authoress Philippa Stockley describes the subsequent fate of the Marquise de Merteuil.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Les Liaisons dangereuses" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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