July 07, 2007

Smackdown 1988: Michelle Pfeiffer, Dangerous Liaisons

I confess that of the 1988 Smackdown movies, this is the one I approached with the most trepidation. I had not much cared for it on its initial release, finding it to be little more than a celebration of cruelty and emotional torture. While I still can't say that I love the movie, I enjoyed it more than I had expected to; I found myself more in tune with the comic elements this time around.

And make no mistake -- this is most definitely a comedy. A comedy that ends tragically for almost everyone, to be sure, but a comedy nevertheless. The scenes in which Glenn Close and John Malkovich plot their revenge on those who have wronged them are viciously funny, and there are moments of near-discovery that could come from contemporary bedroom farce. The actors who do the best in the movie -- Close, Malkovich, Uma Thurman -- are the ones who understand those comic elements.

Sadly, Michelle Pfeiffer is not among them. Not only does she fail to convey the humor, she fails to convey -- well, pretty much anything. It's a performance of blank facial expressions, which work only when the actor manages to communicate her inner life and thoughts. Watch, for instance, Glenn Close in the final scene of the movie; her expression is quite blank as she removes her makeup, but we can read her every thought. Pfeiffer's Madame de Tourvel, on the other hand, has no discernible inner life, and presents to us nothing but vacant dullness.

It's not as if there aren't marvelous opportunities in the role to do something more. Consider the scene in which Malkovich's Valmont comes to her bedroom for the first time. Tourvel should be in torment, torn between her natural virtue and the desire that Valmont has so skillfully nurtured; on some level, she wants to be a bad girl, to understand how being naughty makes Valmont so interesting and appealing. But in Pfeiffer's hands, the scene is nothing but phony weeping and overwrought gasping sighs. "I've never been so unhappy," she says, with all the emotion of someone returning a library book two days late.

It is unfortunate for Pfeiffer that she's sharing the movie with Glenn Close; it makes direct comparisons so easy. Watch the scene in which Valmont breaks off his relationship with Tourvel; then, just a few minutes later, watch the scene in which Close's Marquise de Merteuil learns of Valmont's death. Close is enacting grief; Pfeiffer, by comparison, is suffering from a bad case of indigestion.

Unfair, you say, to compare Pfeiffer with one of our great actresses? OK, let's compare her to Uma Thurman, twelve years her junior, and by far the less experienced actress at this point in their careers. Look at the first opera scene, when Cecile meets Danceny for the first time, and see the little giggle and fleeting expression of joy when the Marquise suggests to Madame Volanges that she hire him as Cecile's music tutor. Look at how beautifully Thurman plays her first bedroom scene with Malkovich -- a dozen emotions flash across her face in just a few seconds -- and at the joy and delight she brings to their later bedroom scenes.

There's not a moment of such emotional clarity or honesty anywhere in Pfeiffer's performance, which is the stiffest and least interesting in the movie. (And I remind you that Keanu Reeves is in this movie, which sets the bar pretty damn low.) Out-acted by Thurman, out-prettied by Reeves -- and this was an Oscar nominee? One can only assume that she was swept along in a mad burst of enthusiasm for the movie, because the performance isn't worthy of such recognition.

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