Sunday, 23 January 2011

montagnarde1793: (anti-Antoinette)
I just got back from a rather disappointing theatrical adaptation of Laclos's Liaisons dangereuses. Why was it disappointing, you might ask? Was the acting bad? No, far from it, the actors were mostly quite convincing, although there were a couple of unfortunate stumbles with the lines. Was it the mise-en-scène ? No, that also worked quite well, even though after having moved the main action of the story (never specified in the original novel, which was published in 1782) to 1788, they gave the characters not always 100% accurate costumes from circa 1770 (with rather modern-looking hair and incorrect lacing). But I appreciate the fact that they didn't try to modernize the setting - I often have the sneaking suspicion when I see that done that those responsible think their audience is made up of idiots incapable of drawing parallels to contemporary society if they see the characters in a historical context. Moreover, since the theatre is essentially a medieval stone-vaulted chamber dating from about the same time as the Conciergerie, it could have worked well that our narrator is in prison...

But that's where we start to get into some problems. (Which I might have known would happen, since the playwright refers to the Conciergerie itself in his "notes d'intention" as merely the place where Antoinette was imprisoned...) Okay, so the narrator, Madame de Rosemonde (Valmont's aunt, for those of you who, like me, are familiar with the story but might not remember the names of the more obscure characters) is in prison during the Revolution. Since we're not given a reason and since she claims to have already to lost a bunch of friends and relatives to the Revolution (presumably she means they were guillotined, since unfortunately we're treated to the usual nauseating counterrevolutionary equation Revolution = guillotine), I suppose we're meant to assume that she's imprisoned (and thus going to be executed - this is apparently determined from the very beginning and the ending doesn't disappoint on that score - apparently everyone ever imprisoned during the Revolution was executed *rolls eyes*) simply because she's an aristo. Or maybe it's because of her habit of giving equally nauseatingly smug and bien-pensant sermons on how "no good can come of evil" and the necessarily fratricidal horrors of a regime founded on bloodshed (which she does several times in the course of the action, once at length). Supreme Being, spare us! (Also, please spare us the Melodramatic Soundtrack of Sinisterness - I swear, it's worse than Danton!) She's also apparently imprisoned in her native province, which makes slightly more sense, as there were a handful of representatives on mission who might have her arrested simply for being dévote, but on the whole if that were the case she'd be far more likely to be shot (or drowned, if she were near Nantes) than guillotined.

In any case, Mme de Rosemonde, in this not-so-clever framing device is writing to Cécile de Volanges, who is somehow in a convent - hello, it's called basic research; the situation Mme de Rosemonde is in is *clearly* meant to be a representation of the Terror (if an incredibly stupid and distorted one right out of the fucking Scarlet Pimpernel, which you wouldn't even expect your average Francophone to have read, so there's another WTF right there) which means there are no more convents. Mme de Rosemonde keeps urging Cécile not to leave the convent and to wait the Revolution out because it can't last forever and things will eventually go back to being more or less like they used to be - which semi-prescience (after all, it's partially true, as we know, but there were also some things that were permanently different and even the Restoration didn't bring them back) is not treated as the prejudice of a privileged woman who can't even imagine the world's being different (which it is, at that point, unless she also has a fucking crystal ball), which would be a perfectly accurate portrayal (after all, there were counterrevolutionaries who thought like that), but rather taken as a given, which really doesn't work. Even leaving aside the fact that Cécile can't be in a convent, why the hell does the playwright think that someone who, as it's implied, is somehow marked for the guillotine would be able to escape simply by hanging out in a convent? WTF, again.

And then, even beyond the historical issues, there's the issue of the plot's just ending while leaving out major plot points and resolutions. What happens to Valmont? In the novel, he's killed in a duel by Danceny. All we get here is essentially that he was killed in a duel and that's how Mme de Rosemonde has his correspondence, but no how or why. So we have this major character who we are informed was killed in between the story and the framing device. A bit anti-climactic. Worse is Merteuil; we never find out what happens to her. Are we supposed to assume she's dead? One of Mme de Rosemonde's apparently many guillotined friends? In the novel she lives but contracts syphilis and becomes disfigured. There's no mention of that here. In the novel Cécile's miscarriage was what led to her convent retreat, but this is never even alluded to. Are we supposed to know the story so well that this doesn't matter, or does it simply not happen in the version of the story? In the novel the Présidente de Tourvel dies. Here, no mention is made of her fate. Again, are we supposed to assume that the playwright thought we would know the story well enough to assume her dead?

It just doesn't add up: the action is cut off in the middle. Merteuil declares war on Valmont, but we never see the results of that (ie, Merteuil tells Danceny that Valmont has been sleeping with Cécile, leading to the duel between Danceny and Valmont and the latter's death). At that point, Mme de Rosemonde is carted off to the guillotine and Cécile decides that when the Revolution is over she wants to become Just. Like. The Marquise de Merteuil. What. I mean, I guess in more capable hands that twist might be interesting but here it just seems tacked on.

In short, I'm not sure why all the critics are raving about this production: historically it's nonsense and narratively it makes no sense and fails to provide a satisfying conclusion to really any dimension of the plot. The costumes (minus the few admittedly nitpicky points I mention), the acting, and the mise-en-scène (minus the incredibly irritating music) were admittedly all quite good. But that's just not enough to make a decent play. Do yourself a favor and read the original novel; it's much better.


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