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Les Liaisons dangereuses

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P. W. K. Stone


Durand Neveu

Page count




Originally published
23 March 1782

Original title
Les Liaisons dangereuses

Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil

Valmont (1989), Cruel Intentions (1999)

Epistolary novel, Libertine novel

Epistolary novel books, Classical Studies books

Les liaisons dangereuses

Les Liaisons dangereuses ([le ljɛ.zɔ̃ dɑ̃.ʒə.ʁøz]; Dangerous Liaisons) is a French epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, first published in four volumes by Durand Neveu from March 23, 1782.


It is the story of the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, two rivals (and ex-lovers) who use seduction as a weapon to humiliate and degrade others, all the while enjoying their cruel games and boasting about their manipulative talents. It has been claimed to depict the decadence of the French aristocracy shortly before the French Revolution, thereby exposing the perversions of the so-called Ancien Régime. However, it has also been described as an amoral story.

As an epistolary novel, the book is 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 their victims and other characters serving as contrasting figures to give the story its depth.

It is often claimed to be the source of the saying "Revenge is a dish best served cold", a paraphrased translation of "La vengeance est un plat qui se mange froid" (more literally, "Revenge is a dish that is eaten cold"). However, the expression does not actually occur in the original novel in any form.

Plot summary

The Vicomte de Valmont is determined to seduce the virtuous, married, and therefore inaccessible Madame de Tourvel, who is staying with Valmont's aunt while her husband is away on 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 Merteuil's previous lover, who has rudely discarded her. Cécile falls in love with the Chevalier Danceny (her young music tutor), and Merteuil and Valmont pretend to help the secret lovers in order to gain their trust and use them later in their own schemes.

Merteuil suggests that the Vicomte seduce Cécile in order to enact her revenge on Cécile's future husband. Valmont refuses, finding the challenge too easy, and preferring 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, he seems to have fallen in love with her. Jealous, Merteuil tricks him into deserting Madame de Tourvel — and reneges on her promise of spending the night with him. In retaliation Valmont reveals that he prompted Danceny to reunite with Cécile, leaving Merteuil abandoned yet again. Merteuil declares war on Valmont and reveals to Danceny that Valmont has seduced Cécile.

Danceny and Valmont duel, and Valmont is fatally wounded. Before he dies, he gives Danceny the letters proving Merteuil's own involvement. These letters are sufficient to ruin her reputation so she flees to the countryside, where she contracts smallpox. Her face is left permanently scarred and she is rendered blind in one eye, so she loses her greatest asset: her beauty. But the innocent also suffer from the protagonist's schemes: desperate with guilt and grief, Madame de Tourvel succumbs to a fever and dies, while dishonoured 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 was viewed as scandalous at the time of its initial publication, 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 de 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 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.

In a well-known essay on Les Liaisons dangereuses, which has often been used as a preface to French editions of the novel, André Malraux argues that, despite its debt to the libertine tradition, Les Liaisons dangereuses is more significant as the introduction of a new kind of character in French fiction. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, Malraux writes, are creations "without precedent". They are "the first [in European literature] whose acts are determined by an ideology".

In a manner, Les Liaisons dangereuses is a literary counterthesis to the epistolary novel as executed with Richardson's Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded. Whereas Richardson uses the technique of letters to provide the reader with a feeling of knowing the protagonist's true and intimate thoughts, Laclos' use of this literary device is exactly opposite: by presenting the reader with grossly conflicting views from the same writer when addressing different recipients, it is left to the reader to reconcile story, intentions and characters behind the letters. The use of duplicitous characters with one virtuous face can be viewed as a complex criticism of the immensively popular naïve moral epistolary novel.


The novel has been adapted into various media, under many different names.


  • German playwright Heiner Müller adapted the story in 1981, entitling it Quartet.
  • Christopher Hampton's adaptation, Les liaisons dangereuses, 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 Madame de Tourvel. In 2012 the Sydney Theatre Company staged Hampton's adaptation with Hugo Weaving as the Vicomte, and Pamela Rabe as the Marquise.
  • In 2012, John Malkovich directed a version of the play with Paris' Théâtre de l'Atelier.
  • Las Relaciones Peligrosas a musical adaptation penned by Marcelo Caballero (Book and Lyrics) and Steban Ghorghor (Music). The musical had a world premiere in 2012 at El Cubo Theatre, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
  • Film

  • Les Liaisons dangereuses (1959), directed by Roger Vadim and starring Jeanne Moreau, Gérard Philipe and Annette Vadim. In this version, Vadim updates the story to a late-1950s French bourgeois milieu.
  • Dangerous Liaisons (1988), directed by Stephen Frears and starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman (based on Hampton's play). This version uses 18th-century costumes and dazzling shots of the Île-de-France region around Paris. It was nominated for multiple Academy Awards including Best Picture.
  • Valmont (1989), directed by Miloš Forman and starring Annette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly.
  • Cruel Intentions (1999), directed by Roger Kumble and starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Selma Blair and Reese Witherspoon relocates the story to modern-day New York and is set amongst upper-class high school teens. The film had two sequels in 2000 and 2004 starring Amy Adams and Kerr Smith.
  • Untold Scandal (2003), directed by E J-yong and starring Lee Mi-sook, Jeon Do-yeon and Bae Yong-joon, transposes the setting to 18th-century Korea.
  • Dangerous Liaisons (2012), directed by Hur Jin-ho and starring Zhang Ziyi, Jang Dong-gun and Cecilia Cheung, is set in 1930s China.
  • Television

  • Les Liaisons dangereuses (1980), a French television film directed by Claude Barma, starring Claude Degliame, Jean-Pierre Bouvier and Maïa Simon).
  • Les Liaisons dangereuses (2003), a French television miniseries directed by Josée Dayan and starring Catherine Deneuve, Rupert Everett, Leelee Sobieski and Nastassja Kinski, which relocates the story to the 1960s.
  • Radio

  • 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 Ciarán 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.
  • Opera

  • The Dangerous Liaisons (1994, rev. 1996–1997) by the American composer Conrad Susa, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. The opera was also aired on television in 1994 under the direction of Gary Halvorson and starring Frederica von Stade, Thomas Hampson, and Renée Fleming
  • Les liaisons dangereuses (1996) by Belgian composer Piet Swerts
  • Piet Swerts: Les Liaisons dangereuses. 17.12.1996.Gent (Wordpremiere) .Marilyn Schmiege (soprano).Francois Le Roux (bar). Lyne Fortin (sopr). Jocelyne Taillon (mezzo).Mireille Capelle (mezzo).Marie-Noelle de Callatay (sopr). Cecile de Volanges.Marc Tucker (ten) Romain Bisschoff (bar). Petra van Tendeloo (sopr). Piet Vansichen (bajo). Dir.: Patrick Davin


  • David Nixon, currently artistic director of Northern Ballet Theatre in Leeds, choreographed a ballet version of Dangerous Liaisons, with music by Vivaldi. It was first performed as part of a mixed program entitled "David Nixon's Liaisons" yat the Hebbel Theatre, Berlin in 1990. He subsequently reworked it for BalletMet, with the premier taking place in the Ohio Theatre on May 2, 1996.
  • In 2008 the Alberta Ballet performed a ballet version of Dangerous Liaisons.
  • In 2014 the Czech National Theatre Ballet produced Valmont, choreographer Libor Vaculík's adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons featuring music by Schubert and Latvian composer Pēteris Vasks.
  • Books

  • Dangerous Tweets (2013), the entire novel adapted into tweets (one tweet per letter) in English as an iBook.
  • Sequel

  • A Factory of Cunning (2005), a fictionalized sequel by Philippa Stockley. It tells how the Marquise de Merteuil faked her death of smallpox and escaped to England with a new identity.
  • References

    Les Liaisons dangereuses Wikipedia