I’ve got a few problems with Dangerous Liaisons — the 2022 Starz TV miniseries adaptation of the late 18th-century novel that has been adapted several times before. Luckily, they’re mostly not costume-related! This version is based on the characters created by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos but purports to tell their origin story — how did they come to use seduction as a weapon? Unlike other adaptations, this one is actually set in the period that the novel was written and set: 1782, so a few years before the Revolution began.
First, let me complain about what bugs me, which is specifically the origin story this production has given the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont. Instead of the louche, jaded aristocrats of the novel, here the Vicomte isn’t yet a vicomte, he’s the disinherited son of a noble family who’s sleeping with rich women for their money. And while we don’t yet know everything about the future Merteuil’s backstory — here called Camille — we do know she starts off as a prostitute and manages to be taken in by the previous Marquise de Merteuil. My problem is that this, particularly the marquise, completely goes against the characters and their motivations in the book. Both leads are supposed to demonstrate the corruption and depravity of the French aristocracy, and it’s hard to do that when you started out as a prostitute or a rent boy. The whole point is that both characters think that they can get away with just about anything, including ruining other people’s lives for fun. Yes, the marquise discovers a talent for manipulating others, but she does so partially in protest at the silent and meek role that’s given to her as an aristocratic wife.
That being said, if I think of this miniseries as a totally different set of characters, sure, it’s entertaining and it works. I just have to constantly force myself to stop arguing with myself that these characters don’t match those they are supposed to grow up to be.
I will note that in three episodes we’ve gotten not one but two my-corset-is-my-prison moments, and the show doesn’t understand men’s shirts, as Valmont is generally wandering around in his pants shirtless which makes no sense since men pulled their shirts down around their junk as protection/what we’d consider underwear.
Also, the show is doing some color-conscious casting, from Camille’s best friend and attendant Victoire, played by Kosari Ali, who is of Somali heritage; to the majordomo, played by Nigerian-British actor Hakeem Kae-Kazim; to Valmont’s step-mother, who is played by the Black actress Colette Dalal Tchantcho.
And shout-out to a small role for one of my favorite singers:
Costumes in Dangerous Liaisons
These were designed by Andrea Flesch (The Tulse Luper Suitcases, Colette, Operation Mincemeat, and the forthcoming All the Light We Cannot See), and overall they work quite well for 1782 with some quibbles — but they’re well made and mostly in the right timeframe. I am contractually obligated to have quibbles, right? Unfortunately Flesch has only done one interview that I can find (with Vogue) and I’ll work a few quotes from that here as we go.
Flesch says they were trying to be “a little more modern” so as not to “overwhelm viewers” (eyeroll), but mostly sticks to the period, having referenced:
“…paintings, especially those by Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Alexander Roslin, Gilbert Stuart, Jean-Étienne Liotard, Henry Robert Morland, Joshua Reynolds, and Louis Tocqué. They are incredible. In their work, you can see the quality of the fabrics they painted, the jewelry, and also these fantastic characters. [Director] Leonora [Lonsdale] wanted us to stick to the period, which was very ornate, but also present that in the simplest way, at a lower register, so it feels a little more modern.”
For reference, here’s some fashion plates demonstrating the change in French fashion from 1779 through 1782:
Flesch told Vogue that she purchased,
“a lot of original pieces to see how they were constructed, and original fabrics to feel what people would’ve felt at the time. We couldn’t really recreate them because we didn’t have enough of the same fabrics or time to add so many details to a single costume, but I tried to capture their essence in the pieces we made.”
Camille (Alice Englert: New Worlds, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell) gets the most fashion-forward wardrobe, even when she’s still a poor prostitute. Her first costume is actually a reproduction of an extant ensemble, although it’s worn here about 5 years too early — which doesn’t sound like much, until you remember how much the French Revolution changed and simplified fashion:
Camille has some grungier outfits, but then comes up in the world:
“Camille is more modern and her costumes reflect that. The cuts and shapes are different from other people’s—there’s a simplicity to it. We see her grow in the series and she really uses her costumes as a weapon to help her get what she needs.”
Madame de Merteuil (Lesley Manville) is dressed more conservatively in robes à la française:
Flesch said, “The most important thing for me was to use only real silk, velvet, cotton, and duchess satin, never polyester.”* And it shows. Check out the glow of Merteuil’s satin dress above as well as Valmont’s suit here:
*Note silk, cotton, and polyester are fibers while velvet and satin are weaves.
“Kosar is Muslim, so we had to find a way to make Victoire look of the time without showing skin. Her wardrobe is quite limited, but the colors are really important—they’re blue, white, and red, the colors of the French Revolution.”
Valmont (Nicholas Denton) goes between sensible office worker and foppy rent boy:
Now grab your smelling salts and your pearls, because Flesch says,
“For the men in the show, I wanted to use original waistcoats from the period. They are so intricately embroidered and you couldn’t recreate them today, but it is still possible to source them. So, almost all of the waistcoats you see, which are embroidered, are original. But then, for some scenes you need duplicates because it’s raining, or there’s blood, or something. That was a big challenge. For Valmont, I actually managed to find three very similar waistcoats from the period, from all over the world, which was pretty amazing.”
And while yes, I’m a huge proponent of historical clothes being preserved in museums, they have to be of a particular quality for that to happen. So assuming these waistcoats weren’t museum-worthy, I’m okay with that? Although of course you can reproduce that embroidery! I’ve done it by hand (impractical for screen costuming), and there’s such a thing as an embroidery machine?
You know I have to talk hair. Overall, I loved the men’s with a few quibbles:
Camille starts with ingenue hair:
Finally they give her a very small looped-up back right at the nape of the neck, which is a nod in the right direction so made me happy.
Merteuil’s hair was occasionally good:
And I particularly liked how they styled step-mother’s hair in something that worked with her natural texture but also suited the French styles of the period:
I’ll be back soon to talk about subsequent episodes, and we can get in to some of the other characters that I haven’t mentioned — particularly Jacqueline de Montrachet (Carice van Houten).
Until then, how are you liking the new Dangerous Liaisons?