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Yet here we are with the new Starz show “Dangerous Liaisons,” an oddly constructed prequel that splits the difference between those high and low-brow adaptations, essentially grafting “Intentions” trashy aesthetic onto the class warfare of pre-Revolution France. If ever you were wondering how the Marquise got her title or how Valmont honed his powers of seduction, well, here you go. While not as probing as the Hampton adaptation, and not nearly as enjoyable as watching Sarah Michelle Gellar ham it up, this Harriet Warner-created show is not without its merits.
Mainly, that’s watching young future-Marquise Camille (Alice Englert) and Valmont (Nicholas Denton) go scorched earth on the French nobility, both scheming their way to the top of the hierarchy after beginning in near destitution. When the show starts, Valmont is having an affair with the current Marquise (Lesley Manville, welcome but underused), using incriminating letters to blackmail her. Meanwhile, Camille is working as a prostitute, falling increasingly in debt in the process.
The two meet when Valmont buys her time not for sex — though there is plenty of that — but for him to learn how to seduce women, with the two eventually falling in love. What happens next is a string of double-crosses and betrayals that would take, well, a novel to unpack in any detail. But eventually, Camille finds herself under the care of the Marquise, as she teaches her how to survive in the French aristocracy. At the same time, Camille all the while plots revenge against Jacqueline de Montrachet (Carice van Houten) for forcing her into prostitution in the first place.
It’s all incredibly convoluted, and the chief pleasure of “Dangerous Liaisons” is not its intricate plotting — you would a lot of string and a cork-board to unpack each character’s family, motivations, and affairs — but in watching Englert and Denton have fun playing out the absurdity. Camille is single-minded in her quest to destroy Montrachet for reasons that are parsed out in overly-dramatic flashbacks across the first season’s eight episodes, and Valmont is essentially her lap dog, doing her bidding with the hopes that she’ll come back to him, eventually.
We also get numerous subplots about Camille and Valmont’s servants, The Marquise’s relationship with her domineering husband Jean (Michael McElhatton), and the other women that Valmont is seducing (and blackmailing), but it’s all ornamentation. The show spirals out in so many directions because, well, it has eight hours to fill, and there are only so many letters that can be written and weaponized.
Yet within this impenetrable plotting, Englert is a particular revelation, outwardly projecting her scheming in a way that always allows the audience to always know what she’s thinking. While she’s been around for a while — the underappreciated “Beautiful Creatures” was released in 2013 — this seems like the type of project that casting directors should take note of. The same goes for her Kosar Ali, who plays Camille’s confidant Victorie. As Camille rapidly ascends the ranks of nobility, Victorie wonders what the end goal of such scheming can be.
Initially, when this show was announced almost a decade ago, it was with Hampton’s name attached as a writer (he remains an executive producer). He’s since moved on to being Florian Zeller’s in-house collaborator — a role that’s both earned him another Oscar and, considering the recent reviews for “The Son,” some particular scorn. While Warner is adept at the royal intrigue, it’s all given the gloss of teens cosplaying. This is really true of Denton’s performance, which oscillates so wildly between passive spectator and grand seducer, that we never get a sense of who he is as a character, and why so many women want to sleep with him.
“Dangerous Liaisons” ends up stuck in the middle. It has less to say about sexual politics than a movie made thirty five years ago, and isn’t nearly as bonkers as “Cruel Intentions.” By the end of eight hours, we’ve both burned through an absolutely incredible amount of plot, but also paradoxically ended up right back at the beginning.
That’s not to say that “Dangerous Liaisons” is terrible or even dull, more that it’s a passable addition to Starz’s growing monarchy-themed programming. It doesn’t do enough to stand out, and feels mainly superfluous. [C]