“Dangerous Liaisons”, “Ridicule” and “Lady J”, three excellent period films, evoke the same theme over three decades: the cruelty of a dry heart.

“Dangerous Liaisons” features Glenn Close and John Malkovitch in a 1988 film directed by Stephen Frears. To take revenge on her lover who abandons her – the Count of Gercourt – Madame de Merteuil (Glenn Close) asks the libertine Viscount of Valmont (John Malkovich) to seduce and take the viginity of the very young Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman) who left her convent to marry Gercourt. If Valmont agrees to take up the challenge and additionally seduce the very honest and very pious Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer), Madame de Merteuil will agree to give in to Valmont’s desire to spend a night with her. Valmont will be successful and death and dishonor will mark the destiny of the various protagonists.

“Ridicule” features Fanny Ardant and Charles Berling in a 1996 French film directed by Patrice Leconte. The provincial and altruistic Baron Ponceludon de Malavoy (Charles Berling) comes to Versailles with the noble intention of presenting to the King a project to drain the swamplans of his region. He is hosted by the gentle Marquis de Bellegarde (Jean Rochefort) who lives with his daughter Mathilde (Judith Godrèche), a young woman passionate about science. If Ponceludon de Malavoy, as his peers, rarely meets the sovereign at Versailles, he assiduously frequents the poisonous society of Madame de Blayac (Fanny Ardant) and Monsieur de Villecourt (Bernard Giraudeau), whose only concern is to show wit – often at the expense of others, hoping that the wit will be reported to the King. If ridicule does not kill in civil society, it is indeed lethal at Court. Although in love with Mathilde, Ponceludon de Malavoy seduces Madame de Blayac in order to advance his cause, then abandons her. She will take revenge.

“Lady J” features Cécile de France and Edouard Baer in a French film directed in 2018 by Emmanuel Mouret. Madame de la Pommeraye (Cécile de France), who prides herself on never having been in love, yields to the pressing courtship of the libertine Marquis des Arcis (Edouard Baer). Against all expectations, a beautiful love unites the lovers but Madame de la Pommeraye, fearing des Arcis’ weariness, causes the breakup to which her lover agrees. Mad with pain and rage, Madame de la Pommeraye plots her vengeance that aims to destroy the reputation of des Arcis, by introducing him to Mademoiselle de Joncquières (Alice Isaaz) a young woman whose apparent angelism and religious devotion actually hide the prostitution into which poverty has thrown her.

All three films ferociously depict the vacuity and idleness of the aristocracy in the twilight of the French monarchy. They also describe the bitterness and cruelty that corrupt the human heart that knows no personal purpose. Despite their nobility titles, the characters of “Dangerous Liaisons”, “Ridicule” and “Lady J” have absolutely no nobility of soul: they lose themselves in the vileness of courtship described by Norbert Elias in “The Court Society” and that Madame de Sévigné flees by deliberately moving away from the Court where to shine in the eyes of a sovereign is the goal of a lifetime.

Constantly seeking royal favor, burning one’s fortune in order to appear and stay at the royal court at Versailles: such is the humiliating political game instituted by Louis XIV – scalded in his youth by the revolt of French aristocrats. This reign of the ego will last until the fall of the French monarchy and it is not insignificant that the three movies take place during the reign of Louis XVI, when a meaningless monarchy is about to collapse.

“Dangerous Liaisons”, before being a film, is a classic of French literature, published in 1782 by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. The novel, remarkable in its epistolary structure, caused great scandal because it was seen as a libertine novel – it is rather a vitriolic painting of a idle and vitiated nobility that Choderlos de Laclos, a soldier with no war, attached to the inspection of the provincial fortifications, wrote down in a moment of great boredom and intense professional frustration.

“Lady J”, before being a film, is taken from the short novel “Story of Mme de la Pommeraye” inserted in “Jacques le Fataliste et son Maître”, published by Denis Diderot in serial form between 1778 and 1780. Prostitution and gallantry may haunt the story, but love and morality will ultimately triumph.

“Ridicule” may not be taken from any period work, but its affiliation with the literary works I have just mentioned and the film by Stephen Frears is more than obvious.

These literary and cinematographic works find meaning only in their historical context – the decadence of an egotistical, selfish nobility, detached from reality, vain and empty, which the French Revolution will soon annihilate – and that is why modern adaptations of “Dangerous Liaisons” like “Sex Intentions” by Roger Kumble have no interest.

Keeping up appearances and maintaining a spotless reputation are the only issues in this society that is running on emptiness. Men can be libertines but women have no other weapon than their apparent virtue, which obliges them to invent themselves against men, to be stronger, as Madame de Merteuil says in “Dangerous Liaisons”. Preserving one’s own reputation in such a world is often tantamount to ruining that of others.

There has recently been much debate in certain circles about the feminist scope of the character of Madame de Merteuil. It must be said that Choderlos de Laclos presented rather feminist views shortly after the publication of his novel during a competition organized in 1783 by the Academy of Châlons-sur-Marne, the subject of which was “What would be the best means of perfecting the education of women? He also denounced the education given to women in his unfinished essay “The Education of Women” according to which he wrote that women are reduced to a state of servitude.

To return to his heroine Madame de Merteuil, she is certainly intelligent, strong, wealthy and financially independent – she is a widow – but her wickedness only comes to satisfy her own interests. She takes up the codes and methods of male power in force at her time, whether it is licentiousness or gallant and political manipulation. She wants to be virile and compares herself to great politicians, even if the gallant intrigue exists in the absence of political intrigue, out of her reach. Her lack of emotional fulfillment makes her empty and vain, and her cruelty is exercised at the expense of others – and especially at the expense of other women.

The same archetype of cruel widow irrigates “Ridicule” and “Lady J”. The maturity and the financial, moral and emotional independence of Madame de Blayac and Madame de la Pommeraye allow them to dedicate their time to their cruel little games. The cruelty of these three women is exercised, without any sorority, against innocent young women, uninformed and innocent. Cécile de Volanges, leaving the convent, is more than excited to discover the world and its passions, Mathilde de Bellegarde, the child of the Enlightenment and Mademoiselle de Joncquières, who must extract herself from prostitution at the dawn of his adult life, are driven by very real and very strong feelings.

Loneliness finally surrounds these widows because they reject love and its attachments. One guesses that it is the bitterness of disappointment that has armored their hearts against the greatest of dangers: loveg. They wish to cause their victims (Madame de Tourvel, Cécile de Volanges, Mademoiselle de Joncquières, Mathilde – not to mention their forgetful lovers) to sink into the deepest social and emotional decline, to avoid love and its enslavement.

Whether it is Madame de Merteuil, Madame de Blayac or Madame de la Pommeraye, they are all three burned by a desire for amorous revenge: Madame de Merteuil keeps alive the feeling she once felt for Valmont, and the same goes for Madame de Blayac towards Ponceludon de Malavoy and Madame de la Pommeraye towards des Arcis.

In contrast, the libertines Valmont and des Arcis are finally moved by purity, innocence and vitality – the same is true for Ponceludon de Malavoy who clumsily plays his gallant cards in a vicious world he doesn’t really understand.

In defense of Merteuil, Blayac and de la Pommeraye, it will be argued that it was obviously very complex or even impossible at the time to be a feminist and to fight with other weapons than those generally attributed to men.

However, there were other models in their time, and the very real Olympe de Gouges obviously comes to mind.

(a very good graphic novel about Olympe de Gouges, in French only unfortunately)

The virtue of Olympe de Gouges is certainly much more debatable than that of our paper widows Merteuil, Blayac and de la Pommeraye. But she did not care and did not evolve in the same social circles.

In 1782 – date of publication of “Dangerous Liaisons”, Olympe de Gouges frequents literary salons, writes her first play which denounces slavery.

She publishes in 1791 the Declaration of Woman’s Rights, affirming the equality of both sexes, because “if the woman has the right to mount the scaffold, she must also have the right to mount the rostrum”.

Here is one who is much more alive, much more inspiring than those women dead to life that are Merteuil, Blayac and de la Pommeraye.

(Editor’s note: so here I am in front of the small 18th century castle in the Bagatelle park, in a skirt whose floral motifs remind me of those fashionable at the time. On another note, the blackness of the fabric reminds me of the blackness of the heart of our three heroines).

Erderm x H&M skirt and earrings – Banana Republic top – Dior heels and Armani flat shoes – Monoprix sunglasses

May 12, 2023

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