This was originally a book, written in the place and period it was set: pre-revolution France. The story is one of scandalous goings on amongst the aristocracy, and the publishers made an astute marketing move when they added a foreword insisting that their opinion was that it was merely a novel, and not based on reality. This was clearly meant to make the idea that it was all true more credible, and thus boost sales.
Many years later, the book was adapted to a play for the London stage, and Alan Rickman was, so the papers say, a sensation in the lead role. After this, Hollywood decided to have a go. Alan was not at the time a famous screen actor, and so the American casting agents looked elsewhere and found John Malkovich. It is a shame that we do not get to see Alan in the part, but to be fair to his replacement, John does an excellent job.
Malkovich plays the Vicompte de Valmont who has in the past had an affair with the exceedingly rich Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil (Glenn Close), who sits throughout the film like a spider in a web, receiving guests at her immense Chateau. Both of them consider intrigue and seduction to be worthy sports, and each admires the other's skills in these pursuits. Valmont sets himself a challenge: to seduce a woman renowned for her happy marriage and strict Christian values (Michelle Pfiffer). An agreement is made that Marquise de Merteuil will reward Valmont's success with a night of passion. Though the immorality of both characters is made clear at this early stage, even now, one senses that the arachnoid Merteuil is far the crueller of the pair.
The film makers changed the period of the original novel somewhat, setting it a couple of decades earlier, to allow them to use a fantastic array of corsets, powdered wigs, and other such paraphernalia. One can allow them this inaccuracy, because the film's costumes and set decorations are sumptuous, and create an alien world in which one has difficulty imagining anyone doing any actual work. In such a world might aristocrats quite believably sink to the immoral level of the protagonists.
All the main characters use American accents. Since this is consistent, it is not annoying. Rather than have an unconvincing array of accents, or actors struggling with affected ones, the film is comfortable with a simple convention: aristocrats speak with American accents, and servants speak with Scottish accents.
A young, very attractive, and at the time unknown Uma Thurman plays an innocent who is seduced by Valmont, and a young and awkward Keanu Reeves, before he too was very famous, plays a music teacher in love with her. Despite Keanu's lack of acting ability, he does not harm the film, being well enough cast as a bumbling non-entity.
This is not a film to watch casually. If you have this playing on your television while you do some sewing, you will miss out on the subtle changes of expression on people's faces, and the quick exchanges of significant glances. There is quite a bit to the plot, and so the film demands and deserves your attention.
Very unusually, the film is better than the book. The book was written at a time when it was common for people to believe in gods and divine justice, and has an ending which today is rather unsatisfactory, relying as it does on God to punish the evils committed. The film instead has the acts of the main characters rebound upon them, and this works much better.
The story concentrates mainly on the character of Valmont. He is quickly established as evil, and yet we the audience members enjoy watching him. Quite often we find ourselves sharing a joke with him in secret, and the people around him are often comical and annoying, and so we quite like to see him undermining them. As the film progresses, we get to like him, and perhaps even want him to succeed in his dastardly schemes. Towards the end, we even start to fear for him, because it becomes increasingly clear that Glen Close's Marquise Isabelle de Merteuil is a female spider who will feed even upon her mates.
The pacing is smooth, the interest sustained, the acting enjoyable, the pictures are beautiful, the jokes naughty, and the story resolves perfectly. The final comeuppance is handled very deftly and has a lot of power.