Oft-debated as either a criticism of pre-revolutionary 18th century decadence or simply an example of it, Choderlos de Laclos’ novel Les Liaisions Dangereuses never had the luxury of historical perspective that its various film versions did, but Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liasons (1988) is well aware of its own contradictions. Playing out, for the most part, as a spicy historical soap opera, the film smacks its lips and strokes its beard along with its scheming characters as they set out to deceive and destroy a pair of innocents over some tangentially related, and barely palpable, percieved slights (given the offhand way in which they are discussed, you’ll soon forget what the motivations ever were in the first place). Yet for as much as the film invites the audience to join in on their wicked fun, it cannot help but cast moral judgement at the same time, and the viewer is never truly implicated or asked to take sides as a result. The film is therefore unchallenging but no less entertaining for it, great looking in a non-stagey, naturally lit (or at least it appears that way), luxuriant kind of way that reminded me more than once of Stanley Kubrick’s superior Barry Lyndon (in it’s best moments, Dangerous Liasons feels nearly as clinical in its approach as that film). For as much as the film is never slow or tedious, it reserves the bulk of its pleasures for the closing scenes, coming on like a sudden deluge following 100 or so rather leisurely minutes: a final meeting between John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer that is positively brutal in its Bergman-esque refusal to flinch, the most non-histrionic presentation of a crucial bit of action possible, particularly in a film that has been decidedly light on physical action up until that point (the sex in the film, while plentiful, tells far more than it ever shows), and Glenn Close’s sudden private and public unravellings. If it never feels like it is about anything more than these characters and their nasty little games in the end, at least it registers as a game well played.