The 1988 feature film Dangerous Liaisons is, in many ways, synonymous with the idea of a serious prestige period drama. With a biting script, a story that explores complex themes about sex and power, and a top-notch cast at its center—including Glenn Close in a role she 100% should have won an Oscar for—casual viewers can be forgiven for assuming that the film is the sort of heavily serious Merchant & Ivory-style historical fare that meant it was likely to win lots of awards but probably wasn’t going to be very fun to watch.
But while Starz’s new television adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons may have a similar rich setting and lush feel, it takes its narrative cues from a very different film adaptation of the story at the heart of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s famous French epistolary novel: teen drama Cruel Intentions. Everything about this series is colorful, emotionally messy, and turned up to eleven, with lots of sex, betrayal, and bitchiness between lovers, friends, and occasionally even random strangers. As a result, this show isn’t exactly what you might call prestige or even particularly serious drama. In truth, it’s a story of scammers as trashy as anything you might see play out on a Bravo reality series, just with a lot more fancy ball gowns, powdered wigs, and delicately sharp social barbs.
In short, it is an absolute delight, the rare period series that doesn’t have any grand ambitions of saying anything particularly meaningful about history, mankind, or morality. Instead, it simply encourages its audience to have fun watching a whole bunch of very attractive people concocting elaborate schemes for their own advancement and being generally terrible to one another. (All while wearing incredible outfits.)
A story of ostentatious wealth and excess set amidst a world gone grimy at the edges with poverty and want, this Dangerous Liaisons is described as a prelude, an origin story that shows us the future Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont when both are still just Camille (Alice Englert) and Pascal (Nicholas Denton), young lovers scrappily trying to survive in the gritty underbelly of Paris. She’s working as a courtesan in a brothel, he’s busy wooing various rich society ladies in the hopes of acquiring trinkets and secrets to advance his own position. But when Camille discovers the extent of Pascal’s involvement with other women, including the letters he’s been sending to the much older and very influential Marquise Genevieve de Merteuil (Lesley Manville), she steals his secret cache of incriminating correspondence in a fury and sets out to change her life (and tell thee Marquise the truth).
Genevieve, perhaps sensing a kindred spirit in the feisty Camille who allows herself no illusions about the supposed innate goodness of others, almost immediately takes the younger girl under her wing, offering her a chance to survive and thrive in Paris society. Manville, who is having herself quite the year between this series, PBS mystery Magpie Murders, and her turn as Princess Margaret in the fifth season of The Crown, is predictably wonderful as the tired and jaded elder society grand dame, and every scene she and Englert share is layered with double meanings as the pasts and futures of both this title and these two women overlap.
Where the 1988 movie was much more openly cynical, this series takes advantage of the fact that its story is about earlier, less fully hardened versions of these familiar characters. While both Camille and Valmont have plenty of reasons to mistrust the world around them, neither has completely let go of things like hope and optimism or of the idea that somehow, they’ll be able to get the things they want without sacrificing essential pieces of their souls to do so. Their relationship has not (yet) turned fully toxic, and there are moments when it seems like these two crazy kids might just find their way back to one another.
Fans of the film may well find the plot of these first five episodes a bit repetitive: After all, we’ve basically seen it before. To get back in Camille’s good graces after their epic falling out over his letters, Valmont has to seduce a performatively pious woman and bring back written proof of her love. This time instead of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Madame de Tourvel, it’s Carice Van Houten’s Jacqueline de Montrachet, but the idea is basically the same. (One gets the sense that this somehow evolves into a game the pair will play often in the years to come. Everyone needs hobbies, I guess!) But, it’s worth noting that Camille’s reasons for wanting to destroy Jacqueline are much more personal—and, frankly, horrifying—than they initially appear; and, to her credit, Van Houten does an outstanding job at making de Montrachet a more compelling and complicated character than she perhaps any right to be.
But the true star of this prequel is Englert, who shines throughout the five episodes available to screen for critics (out of a total of eight) as Camille rises from brothel girl to society powerhouse, wielding her hard-won cache of secrets and knowledge to both protect and promote her station. As she repeatedly blackmails people and casually destroys lives, the show doesn’t ask us to sympathize or even agree with her choices, but rather simply to marvel at the depth of her nerve. As she lies, cheats, and steals her way into the city’s upper echelon, we watch her scam her way through fraught dinner parties, elaborate balls, hunting trips, and even a visit to a gentleman’s club, repeatedly escaping ruin with little more than her wits, a willingness to tell bald-faced lies and a cheatsheet (in the form of a book of devotions with notes about various society figures etched in the margins) provided by the household’s Majordomo (Hakeem Kae-Kazim).
While Camille’s best friend / partner in crime / quasi-servant Victoire (Kosar Ali) repeatedly attempts to remind her of messy things like consequences and the concept of right and wrong, her pleas increasingly fall on deaf ears as the series continues. (I do wish the show did more with this relationship, a bond that is intriguingly murky but largely unexplained.) I’m not sure whether we’re supposed to view Camille’s proximity to power as a corrupting influence or just accept that her rise is inevitable, but as with most scammer-focused tales, half the fun comes from simply watching her work.
Dangerous Liaisons premieres Sunday, November 6 on STARZ.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.