'Dangerous Liaisons' review: The epistolary novel as an Instagram feed

First published in 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ villainous novel “Dangerous Liaisons” requires only a light airbrush to be transpla...


First published in 1782, Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ villainous novel “Dangerous Liaisons” requires only a light airbrush to be transplanted convincingly into the corridors of a modern high school where teenagers exercise sex, power and status as weapons. Nonetheless, director Rachel Suissa puts Laclos’ story through a heavy Instagram filter in this extravagantly flimsy adaptation.

Tristan (Simon Rérolle) and Vanessa (Ella Pellegrini) are a power couple seeking influence at Lycée Victor Hugo in Biarritz, a coastal town in the south of France. He’s a rapper and a champion surfer; she’s a fading child star. Together, these performative lovebirds share 10 million social media followers — and a pact to seduce and destroy a new student, Celene (Paola Locatelli), a tech bachelor who dominates her Luddite superiority over her superficial classmates by bringing a book hardcover of Proust at a Pool Party. Not that they care. “You can be noble or rich and still be a loser,” Tristan says, stating the thesis of this update. “Today is all about fame.”

Suissa displays a good deal of the directorial moxie required to pull off her ecstasy pill-fueled screenplay, which she wrote with the collaboration of Slimane-Baptiste Berhoun. The film’s energy is most colorful in its corners, where minor characters dance around in blue mohawks and frolic around makeup parties dressed as mermaids and nuns. The hilarious Héloïse Janjaud, playing the role of a clumsy student who aspires to transform into a leather-clad vampire, propels it almost all by herself. However, if this film is to compete with the erotic throbbing and moral decadence of “Cruel Intentions,” the 1999 teen drama adaptation of Laclos’ novel, he really needs more Rérolle sleaze: instead of transforming from cad to honest lover, his character simply goes from cold to cool, throwing cold water on the triangle of lust as her emotional turbulence begins to cloud.

Playing on the epistolary structure of the novel, Suissa brings out the tortures of high school students in monologues broadcast live. It’s a smart idea, but in execution, the film’s emphasis on app-fueled drama cuts back on key moments for people staring at their phones.

Dangerous Liaisons
Unclassified. In French, with subtitles. Duration: 1h49. To watch on Netflix.

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