Starz’ Dangerous Liaisons: Episodes 1-3

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I’ve got a few problems with Dangerous Liaisons — the new 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:

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Paloma Faith is a fabulous retro-y British singer.

 

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:

1780s-fashion
1780s-fashion

Both are from Gallerie des Modes.

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:

Caraco and petticoat, ca. 1789, Cotton, embroidered with grape vines, Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode de la Ville de Paris

Caraco and petticoat, ca. 1789, Cotton, embroidered with grape vines, Palais Galliera, Musee de la Mode de la Ville de Paris

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My one quibble here is that I’m convinced the dress has those weird embroidery patches on the lower bodice because they were placed to be seen around a cross-over fichu.

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But the dress isn’t displayed that way by the museum, so this is a SUPER nitpick and I probably shouldn’t even mention it.

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Also, HOW did it stay that clean??

Fashion plate, 1793, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The kind of cross-over fichu I’m talking about | Fashion plate, 1793, Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.”

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A straightforward robe à l’anglaise in a VERY typical 18th century blue.

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This I think is trying to be a levite, which is a sort-of redingote-y style, although those bust darts are not good and the back is drawn up like a polonaise, which totally doesn’t suit the levite style.

Levite, 1778, Gallerie des Modes

My spidey sense tells me they were inspired by this fashion plate, but maybe I’m totally wrong? Does that beige dress remind you of something? Is it a rewear from something else? | Levite, 1778, Gallerie des Modes

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Pink with overly fluffy sleeve ruffles.

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A super-cute jacket and petticoat.

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This wasn’t my favorite so I’m glad to read Flesch say, “At the beginning, she gets her first opera dress from Madame Merteuil—this baby-pink dress which doesn’t reflect her taste. Then, as she gains power, she develops her own style.”

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I’m thinking this red satin française is supposed to be Powerful Camille?

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Okay, now there’s a standing collar — which is accurate (it was a retro 17th century touch), but should be white or cream — so maybe this is a different red dress?

The salon of the Duke of Orléans (sitting); he is with his son (standing) by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, c. 1770

That standing collar | The salon of the Duke of Orléans (sitting); he is with his son (standing) by Louis Carrogis Carmontelle, c. 1770

Madame de Merteuil (Lesley Manville) is dressed more conservatively in robes à la française:

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This satin dress was great, although that seam under the arm isn’t an 18th century approach to fitting (but makes perfect sense for theater so is a minor nitpick).

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I wasn’t a huge fan of this — the tassels, while nice, seem like an afterthought; and that horizontal bust dart is weird.

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.

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You can’t fake that glow!

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Another glowing silk satin on step-mother.

“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.”

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She’s always covered up to the neck and with her hair covered as well.

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There’s that red white and blue.

Valmont (Nicholas Denton) goes between sensible office worker and foppy rent boy:

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Casual. His servant is rocking the Full Dauphin haircut, i.e. the early 1790s style worn by young boys.

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?

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Fop! And we can assume that’s an actual 18th-century waistcoat.

You know I have to talk hair. Overall, I loved the men’s with a few quibbles:

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Valmont’s own hair, which SHOULD be cut short or shaved because that was more practical for wig wearing and so what most men of the period did. Also, sometimes he’ll take off a wig and suddenly have his own hair in a queue or wig bag, and I’m thinking, “Huh? Was his own hair the queue and the wig was just a cap?”

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In general the wigs were very nicely made.

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Especially when he goes FULL FOP, like this pink wig that Trystan is currently dying over.

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I didn’t love how they let him have sideburns peeking out from under his wig, however.

Camille starts with ingenue hair:

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It’s one of those all-up styles, including in back, and looks about 10 years earlier than Paloma Faith’s big frizzy do.

Marie-Antoinette, reine de France (1755-1793) by Felix Lecomte, 1783, Palace of Versailles

The hair SHOULD be longer in back, and either worn hanging down or looped up like this example | Marie-Antoinette, reine de France (1755-1793) by Felix Lecomte, 1783, Palace of Versailles

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:

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Beautiful!

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But what the hell was this weird thing she more often wore? It’s like they took a man’s wig and added some 1940’s victory curls to it??

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:

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It helps that those frizzy 1780s hairstyles may have been inspired by African hair!

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?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

18 Responses

  1. Boxermom

    Okay, if one more costume designer says they’re trying to be “a little more modern” (relatable) I am going to puke! Sorry, I’m having a really bad week. Love you ladies!

    Reply
  2. Bel

    I think Kosar Ali looks beautiful in this show, but without being an expert, I don’t know that her costumes strike me as particularly accurate to what a Muslim woman of African descent would actually wear in period France (something I kind of doubt the costumers did much research on).

    Reply
  3. MrsC (Maryanne)

    Hmm. It’s ok for Paloma to rock machine embroidered silk, but we’re trashing original 18thC waistcoats because embroidery is a lost art. I guess like everybody else who is ever interviewed by media, these costumiers’ words get twisted or edited, or turned into bytes.
    I nearly whooped out loud at your “fibre vs weave” comment! It’s such a pet peeve! Our local ebayesque site’s categories for fabrics are a similarly impossible garble of weaves and fibres, resulting in it being impossible to use as people never know where to list things so it all goes into “cotton.” Meatheads (and yes I have fought them over it and they think I am a mad woman. Which I am, but this is not an example of it, thank you!)

    Reply
  4. hsc

    Thanks for reviewing this! This is yet another series I’m likely not going to get to see, and the run-downs of the costumes and plot elements you provide are probably more enjoyable, anyway.
    One quibble, though, with this :
    “…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.”

    While I’m certain this was standard practice, I’ve also seen museum pieces online that are being described as men’s underwear from this period– so perhaps some men wore linen underbreeches as well?
    Additionally, unless Valmont’s outerwear is made of something incredibly coarse (like sackcloth or haircloth), there’s no real reason for “protection” from contact with it, and the tucked-in shirt would give no real support to his “junk.”
    Men do frequently “go commando” all day long these days, so I could see Valmont sometimes “freeballing” without a shirt tucked in– especially if the shirt is not merely untucked but off. It’s not the equivalent of wearing a corset without a chemise underneath.
    Looking forward to future recaps of this! Great job!

    Reply
  5. Sharon in Scotland

    I don’t get “overwhelmed`’ by the fashion when watching something like this. I might be baffled, puzzled, astonished or jealous, but my poor, sweet naive self does not get “overwhelmed”

    Reply
  6. Cathy Young

    Thank you for the review! I’m glad to see someone finally point out the thing that so bugs me about this show: the “origin story” totally does not match the characters from the novel (and the 1988 film), who wield their privilege as unselfconsciously as they breathe. It also doesn’t match the explicit text of the novel. Harriet Warner has claimed that the backstory she invented was inspired by a line from a key Merteuil letter, Letter 81, in which Merteuil says that she is “her own creation.” But that makes me wonder if Warner has read the rest of the letter, in which Merteuil gives a detailed account of her background and her coming of age as a sheltered girl from an aristocratic family and then a young bride. It’s all extremely conventional; when Merteuil says she is a self-made woman, she is clearly referring to the self-driven forging of her character. (Her autobiography has some fascinating details that I personally find much more interesting than the social-climbing prostitute in the Starz series!) As for Valmont, the same Merteuil letter taunts him about how he’s never had to surmount any obstacles and had everything handed to him on a silver platter because he was born with all the advantages (title, wealth, good looks). As it happens, Valmont does at one point mention (Letter 115) that there was one time when he was in a sexual relationship solely out of obligation, with a “Comtesse de ***” who was helping secure a position at the royal court for him. He also makes it clear that he still resents the Comtesse because of it (“Of all the women I’ve had, she’s the only one of whom I actually enjoy speaking ill”).

    Also: in both the book and the 1988 movie, Merteuil says that when Valmont began to court her she already knew of his reputation as a libertine and longed to cross swords with him, as it were, both because she was attracted to him and because adding him to her body count was a matter of “glory” (or “self-esteem,” in the movie). We also know from an “editor’s footnote” that their relationship began after Merteuil’s then-lover (the one who is set to marry Cecile de Volanges) left her for Valmont’s mistress. It’s ironic because the book has a LOT of ambiguities and mysteries (we don’t know, for instance, any specifics of how Merteuil and Valmont’s relationship actually began) but the Starz miniseries chooses to do a backstory on those aspects of their past which we do know from the novel/film and which are shown here completely differently.

    Lastly, the same Letter 81 also discusses Merteuil’s maid Victoire — here, her practical best friend. In the book, Victoire is indeed Merteuil’s trusted maid, but their history is far less warm and fuzzy. She is the daughter of Merteuil’s wet nurse (her “milk-sister,” in the terminology of the time) who, as a young adult, committed some sort of “folly of love” that made her parents feel she had dishonored the family. Merteuil encouraged them to have Victoire forcibly confined to a convent and helped them get a “special warrant” for her imprisonment from a cabinet minister she knew. (Those were the “sealed letters,” lettre de cachet, that allowed a person to be imprisoned without trial, or without even a formal crime.) Then, she persuaded Victoire’s parents to leave the warrant in her possession and defer its enforcement contingent on Victoire’s good behavior. Since Victoire doesn’t know of Merteuil’s role in obtaining this warrant, she regards Merteuil as her savior; but she also knows that if she crosses the marquise, she could always be locked up. Thus she is basically kept in servitude by a combination of loyalty and fear (plus Merteuil knows that if Victoire ever goes decides to expose her, she can easily discredit the maid by depicting her as a disgruntled servant and an ex-criminal). In other words … a much, much darker storyline.

    Let’s even leave aside how incredibly ahistorical the plot of the series is. For an aristocrat to disinherit his only son and leave the estate to one’s widow and the title to one’s stepson was basically complete unheard of, barring exceptional circumstances (e.g. if the son was thoroughly and publicly disgraced, or in prison). The line of aristocratic succession was serious business! Even making a younger son one’s principal heir was near-impossible except in the circumstances mentioned above, or unless the eldest son had taken clerical vows. (The famous Talleyrand, for instance, was basically coerced by his family into joining the clergy so that the estate and title of the Comte de Perigord could go to his younger brother, because Talleyrand’s bad foot would have made it very difficult for him to have a military career and his father wanted his heir to follow in his footsteps as an officer.) And how in the world does Valmont hope that one of his cougars is going to get him a title? Rich noblewomen didn’t hand out titles, only the King could do that. Hostly, Valmont’s story in the series is more like something out of Maupassant’s Bel Ami (which takes place about 100 years later).

    Also: the series doesn’t even seem to know if it wants to be a straight-up prequel or a show “inspired by” the original. Note that it takes place in 1783 (according to the screen titles). That’s … one year after the novel was published. It also looks like the Jacqueline de Montrachet story is a recycling of the Valmont/Merteuil/Tourvel triangle, with variations (i.e., the seduction is now entirely Merteuil’s idea and it’s for revenge), and I think the daughter of the Comtesse de Sevigny will have a storyline with the Chevalier Danceny similar to Danceny/Cecile in the book/movie. I also have a hunch (based on the name of Valmont’s usurper stepbrother) that he will appear in a reenactment of another book subplot.

    It’s frustrating because I love the series’ visuals, including the costumes, and I think the cast is great — Nicholas Denton’s Valmont is actually much closer to how I imagine the vicomte than John Malkovich’s version, and Alice Engelbert makes a great Merteuil when she adopts her aristocratic persona. I would have loved to see them in a miniseries that properly adapts the novel! (I say properly because the movie inevitably loses a lot of its nuances and subplots, and I think a miniseries is the best way to do it.) The storyline they have here … I suppose has its moments if you forget about the novel, though parts of it are really off (like the whole storyline with Gabriel, which feels as if Victor Hugo’s Claude Frollo inadvertently wandered into a Maupassant novel). But dang, this series could have been so much more.

    Reply
    • Nico

      Your remarks are spot on.
      I would add that the « stain » of her prostitute debuts would have been unwashable for Merteuil and she would have been at best a mere retired courtisane (and thus an outcast in the aristocratic society), but never a well-established marquise as she is supposed to be in the novel.

      Reply
      • Cathy Young

        Well, I suppose the idea is that she successfully conceals her background especially since she’s presumed dead after that drowned girl is fished out of the Seine. Presumably the marquis de Merteuil is going to marry her (and I’m actually somewhat curious to see how that will play out). But even so, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that either Merteuil or Valmont has ever known deprivation.

        Reply
    • Kat

      Having only seen the film version (and Cruel Intentions but obviously when it comes to French court society, that doesn’t count), I found your comment fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing all this extra detail!

      Reply
  7. Alexander

    I do find the recreation of the characters origins rather irritating. The Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont are the epitome of indolent and pampered aristocrats who see people as sport and who are rather bored of everything within the sphere of their over-privileged lives. The idea of a courtesan Merteuil and rent boy/gigolo Valmont seems to me almost utterly ridiculous; simply look to Versailles and high societies opinion of the real life Madame du Barry! She was a comtesse by marriage (although admittedly for the King’s convenience) and was Louis XV’s maîtresse-en-titre, yet no one seemed able to forget that she had lowly beginnings ‘on the game’; as so with Merteuil if she had had her start as a prostitute. She would never have had the power and influence she wielded in the book, where she seem so careful of her reputation and position… and so it is very hard to imagine her having been a known sex worker to the higher classes. Nothing within this farfetched plot makes too much sense when you look to the original characterisations within the book or play. In regard to the strange “horizontal bust dart” in Leslie Manville’s red velvet, oddly tasselled robe a la francaise/sack back creation (????). It seems to me that it is a strange hybrid of pattern pieces and darts thrown together randomly and without reason… I am certain I have never seen such a constructed set-up on any such style of gown. Weird! lol.

    Reply
    • Cathy Young

      As I said to Nico above, I think the premise is that Merteuil (once she becomes a marquise, presumably through marriage to the Marquis de Merteuil) keeps her lowly and scandalous origins carefully hidden. Even so, there are so many things wrong with the premise. Like the fact that neither Camille nor Genevieve even bother to make up a last name for her and she’s introduced simply as “Mademoiselle Camille”? This, in a society so fixated on family names that in the novel, none of the characters except Cecile de Volanges (and the servants) even have first names. (I mean, well. Obviously they do. But we don’t know them.)

      Reply

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