Home > Reviews > DANGEROUS LIAISONS – George Fenton


February 28, 2019 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Dangerous Liaisons was originally a stage play by British playwright Christopher Hampton, whose work was an ambitious attempt to adapt Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s classic 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses for modern audiences through the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is a dark drama about seduction and revenge set in France in the years immediately preceding the Revolution. Two aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, conspire together to ruin the lives of various former lovers for no other reason than to satisfy their own amusement and petty jealousies; eventually, they fixate on the virginal Cécile de Volanges, who is engaged to Merteuil’s former lover, and Madame de Tourvel, the devoutly religious wife of one of Valmont’s supposed friends. What transpires is a damning exposé of the insouciance of the rich, who use wealth and sexuality as weapons, and indulge in selfish whims and fancies with no regard for the destruction it causes to those around them. Hampton re-wrote his play for the big screen in 1988, where it was directed with lavish decadence by Stephen Frears. Glenn Close starred as the merciless Merteuil, John Malkovich was suave as the predatory Valmont, and Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman suffered as the unwitting subjects of their ploy. Both Close and Pfeiffer received Oscar nominations for their performances, and the film was a critical success, winning three Academy Awards, picking up two more nominations, and inspiring an updated version – Cruel Intentions – set in New York in 1999.

The score for Dangerous Liaisons is by George Fenton, who previously worked with director Frears on a number of acclaimed British TV movies in the 1980s including Afternoon Off, Bloody Kids, Walter, and Saigon: Year of the Cat; this was their first cinematic feature film together. Fenton’s approach to the score was to adopt the style and mannerisms of the baroque music prevalent in aristocratic society at the time the film was set. As such, the score is highly classical and refined, making prominent use of a string orchestra and a harpsichord, but limiting brass and woodwinds to supporting roles. In addition to this, Fenton also incorporated new arrangements of music by period composers such as Antonio Vivaldi, Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel, and Christoph Willibald Gluck into the score, building entirely new cues around this pre-existing music and using it not as diegetic source music, but as actual dramatic underscore. This approach blurs the lines between the ancient and the modern, and allows the score to fully immerse itself in the sound of the period; as such, the work sounds incredibly authentic, with Fenton’s own music sounding as though it could have been written in the 1770s.

What’s interesting about the score is how Fenton takes this music and these orchestrations – which are usually associated with beauty and regal elegance – and arranges them to seem corrupt, menacing, and dangerous. It’s a master class in showing how the subtlest of changes – altering the key, or the tempo, of something familiar just the tiniest amount – can completely change the tone and feel of a piece of music, making attractiveness seem cruel, making grandeur feel debauched, making romance feel repulsive. It’s a clever trick that Fenton pulls, twisting these emotions like this, and it perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy of the world that Merteuil and Valmont inhabit, with its veneer of sophistication masking a rotten core. However, Fenton’s music would be nothing if it did not have an entire catalogue of classical music from which to draw, and it is our familiarity with the style of these pieces which makes it possible for Fenton to manipulate them in the first place.

Two cues, “Dressing” and “The Staircase,” are adapted from the La Cetra Concerto No.9 by Antonio Vivaldi, one of the twelve La Cetra violin concertos he wrote in 1727, and are stately pieces intended to conjure up the opulence of aristocratic life in Paris in the period. The inclusion of a bright trumpet line towards the end of “Dressing” gives it a touch of regal majesty that is very appealing, while the inclusion of a recorder to accompany the violins in “The Staircase” adds a level of new instrumental depth.

Two cues, “The Set Up” and The Key” are adapted from Concerto in A Minor for Four Harpsichords by Johann Sebastian Bach, and “Going Hunting” is adapted from the famous 1740 organ concerto The Cuckoo and the Nightingale by George Frideric Handel. There are also two beautiful performances of operatic arias; one of “Ombra Mai Fu” from Handel’s 1738 opera Xerxes, performed by Paulo Abdel do Nascimento, and one of “Malheureuse Iphigénie!” from the 1779 opera Iphigénie en Tauride by Christoph Willibald Gluck, performed with cut-glass precision by soprano Catherine Bott.

It is from out of these classical traditions that Fenton builds his score, and it’s really quite excellent. The “Dangerous Liaisons Main Title” is a bold and dramatic fanfare for brass and surging strings that sets the scene perfectly. “Madame de Tourvel,” despite its name, is actually the introduction of the theme for Glenn Close’s character, the Marquise de Merteuil. Fenton’s insidious harpsichord lines, woodwind countermelody, and prancing strings have a sly, mischievous feeling, but also a touch of faded beauty, like too much powder covering aged features, giving the illusion of wealth and success but masking ugliness within. Merteuil’s theme continues to dominate the subsequent “The Challenge,” where snake-like combination writing for harpsichord, strings, and woodwinds sets the plot in motion.

The dark, insistent string figure for John Malkovich’s character, the Vicomte de Valmont, is introduced in “Valmont’s First Move,” where the same instruments combine in a way that seems menacing, prowling like a hunter waiting to strike, hinting at the danger he poses to the unwary maidens of Paris. “Beneath the Surface” further explores these ideas through brooding woodwinds, plucked harps, and string sustains which sound sinister and malevolent, while in “Her Eyes Are Closing” Valmont’s theme moves between strings and a wandering oboe line, urgent and agitated. The harpsichord and string tremolos in this cue sound almost like something Bernard Herrmann might have written for a film like this, and remind me very much of the style and tone of scores like Vertigo and Psycho.

“Tourvel’s Flight” is another piece of urgent drama, filled with brass trills and chugging string figures similar to those heard in the Main Title, albeit with a touch of action music insistence. Interestingly, “Success,” marks a turning point in the score, as it is here that the creepy little string figures of Valmont’s theme eventually swell into a finale filled with genuine romance as the unthinkable happens and Valmont actually falls in love with his conquest, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character Marie de Tourvel. “Beyond My Control” underscores the final confrontation between Valmont and Merteuil with more Herrmannesque chords and figures, blending together the ideas for the two conspirators as the depths of their deception finally make them turn on each other. Prominent harps, agitated string ostinatos, and dramatic brass-led flourishes dominate the finale.

“A Final Request” showcases a warmer statement of Marie de Tourvel’s theme as Valmont – desperate for salvation – publicly declares his love and sets in motion his final bid to end Merteuil’s campaign of psychological torment. “The Mirror” begins with an orchestral statement of the main melody from Handel’s opera, but then segues into a dark piece for harpsichord and strings as Merteuil is finally shamed and shunned for her actions; the music mirrors her shock and despair, offering a deconstructed and broken statement of her theme as she faces up to the depth of her depravity. The “Dangerous Liaisons End Credits” offers an extended statement of Marie de Tourvel’s theme, pretty and elegant, before the album concludes with a final performance of the Allegro from Handel’s Concerto in A Minor for Four Harpsichords.

Dangerous Liaisons earned George Fenton the third of his four Oscar nominations to date and, although he eventually lost the award to Dave Grusin and The Milagro Beanfield War, it’s not difficult to see why the score was so acclaimed. Fenton’s music is steeped in those wonderful baroque traditions, but he was clever enough to use them as inspiration without resorting to pastiche. Taking the essence of Bach and Handel and turning that music into effective dramatic underscore is no mean feat in itself, but when you combine that new music with original adaptations of actual Bach and Handel music and use it all as dramatic underscore, then the excellence of Dangerous Liaisons becomes clear. Fenton would tread this path again, on scores like Mary Reilly, The Madness of King George, the rejected score for Interview with the Vampire, and (to a lesser extent) things like Shadowlands; adopting the mannerisms of classical greats and making them his own is something at which he excels, and Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most engaging examples of his talent in this regard.

Buy the Dangerous Liaisons soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Dangerous Liaisons Main Title/Dressing (adapted from La Cetra Concerto No.9 Op.9 – Largo e Spiccato, written by Antonio Vivaldi) (4:20)
  • Madame de Tourvel (2:15)
  • The Challenge (2:07)
  • O Malheureuse Iphigénie! from Iphigénie en Tauride (written by Christoph Willibald Gluck, performed by Catherine Bott) (4:30)
  • Going Hunting (adapted from Organ Concerto No.13 in F: The Cuckoo and the Nightingale, written by George Frideric Handel) (1:21)
  • Valmont’s First Move/The Staircase (adapted from La Cetra, Op.9 Concerto No.9 – Allegro, written by Antonio Vivaldi) (2:19)
  • Beneath the Surface (2:15)
  • The Set Up (adapted from Concerto in A Minor for Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065 – Allegro and Largo, written by Johann Sebastian Bach) (2:13)
  • The Key (adapted from Concerto in A Minor for Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065 – Allegro and Largo, written by Johann Sebastian Bach) (2:45)
  • Her Eyes Are Closing (3:42)
  • Ombra Mai Fu from Xerxes (written by George Frideric Handel, performed by Paulo Abdel do Nascimento) (2:42)
  • Tourvel’s Flight (2:09)
  • Success (2:37)
  • Emilie (2:33)
  • Beyond My Control (4:26)
  • A Final Request (3:26)
  • Ombra Mai Fu Reprise/The Mirror (written by George Frideric Handel, performed by Paulo Abdel do Nascimento) (2:35)
  • Dangerous Liaisons End Credits (3:00)
  • Allegro from Concerto in A Minor for Four Harpsichords, BWV 1065 (written by Johann Sebastian Bach) (4:13)

Running Time: 55 minutes 29 seconds

Virgin Records CDV-2583 (1988)

Music composed and conducted by George Fenton. Orchestrations by George Fenton. Featured musical soloists Gavyn Wright, David Woodcock, Maurice Cochrane, Elizabeth Wallfisch, Alison Bury, Leslie Pearson, Roderick Elms, Guy Dagul and John Toll. Recorded and mixed by Keith Grant. Edited by Michael Connell. Album produced by George Fenton.

  1. silenig
    March 1, 2019 at 3:26 pm

    Concerto for 4 harpsichords (BWV 1065) was J.S. Bach’s arrangement of a piece by Antonio Vivaldi, Concerto for 4 Violins (RV 580). Karl Richter’s interpretation of the former, and Il Solisti Italiani’s performance of the latter, are strongly recommended! (I would put youtube links, but they can be easily found 😉

    Also, it should be mentioned that the same story was made into another film at around the same time Dangerous Liaisons came out: 1989’s Valmont by Milos Forman (starring Colin Firth, Annette Bening and Meg Tilly in the three main roles). It’s maybe not as atmospheric and effective as Dangerous Liaisons, and it was completely overshadowed by it, but given that it’s the same Milos Forman that gave us one of the most legendary films set in the 18th Century, Amadeus, it’s visually lavish, interesting, and certainly worth watching.

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