Dangerous Liaisons could have explored teen psyche in the time of Instagram frenzy but merely hawks cliched teenybopper mush.
Instagram Stories replace letters as crux of the plot, and late 18th-century French nobility is swapped with present-day high school teenagers as protagonists, in this teenybopper retelling of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, originally published in 1782. The socio-cultural makeover is a peculiar tweak as the film mixes the novel’s old-school formula stock of love, deceit, guilt and revenge with the new-age obsession for social media fame, often driven by ruthlessness, desperation and the utter lack of morality.
Laclos’ novel found perspective in its exploring of depravity among the French nobility in the run-up to French Revolution. The film tries setting up a similar context while narrating the story of youngsters whose lives revolve around social media updates. The idea seems fascinating as the film underlines its leitmotif vis-a-vis the novel, with the voiceover of one of the lead actors, stating how, 200 years ago, making a name for oneself meant having royal blood and 20 years ago it meant being loaded, and how today you could be noble or rich and still be a loser unless you found fame. “Once you’ve tasted it, you’ll do anything to keep it, even if it kills you,” sums up the voiceover of Tristan, the male protagonist of the story.
High school boy Tristan, played by Simon Rerolle, is an Instagram star and the ‘King’ of Biarritz, a town where local youngsters worship him as celebrity. A celebrity surfer who aims to be world champion in the sport someday, Tristan has painted a picture-perfect tale of love online with the local ‘Queen’, Vanessa (Ella Pellegrini), a onetime child star who, too, is a social media sensation now. It is a heady world that writer-director Rachel Suissa and co-writer Slimane-Baptiste Berhoun set up, one where the King and Queen, barely 17, together have a 10-million following, live in castles and can afford to wager their Range Rovers and beach houses. The duo’s has a penchant, incidentally, at striking outrageous wagers with each other, which in turn lets them stay viral.
The narrative takes off with Celene (Paola Locatelli), a girl from Paris who arrives in Biarritz to attend a new school, where she ends up classmates with Tristan, Vanessa and other key players of the plot including cousin Charlotte (Heloise Janjaud). Celene is an anomaly, therefore an object of intrigue among the school crowd. Daughter of a renowned Parisian theatre director, she is a bookworm who would rather cosy up with limited edition Proust in a corner at a wild party, and who has no idea what verified account on Instagram means. She advocates love, marriage, virginity and the need for fidelity to one partner all life. When Vanessa meets Celene at a party, she hits upon a nasty brainwave for a new wager. She challenges Tristan to seduce the idealist Celene within a given period of time, and get her to cheat on her Parisian boyfriend.
The problem with adapting a work of literature that has already had half a dozen cinematic remakes in the past — including Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Cruel Intentions (1999) in Hollywood — is the story no longer seems new after all these decades. Suissa’s premise seems cliched as it sets up the Tristan-Celene-Vanessa equation that forms the core of the plot. Tristan, the alpha teen, will not surprisingly meet initial resistance from Celene, who seems mature beyond her years, as he tries to get into her good books any which way, even as Vanessa predictably emerges the classic ‘vamp’ beyond her image of flawlessness as a celebrity.
Imagining Laclos’ basic story against the social media backdrop was naturally meant to give this revisit a fresh look. The build-up works fine as we enter the campus with Celene. It is an interesting milieu where the King and the Queen tower above all, they are the elite who drive an unspoken class system beneath them, using their popularity as a weapon to control their schoolmates and ‘fans’. The ‘royal couple’ have an entire ‘court’ of knights, vassals, even buffoons, to prop their social media popularity in the campus. The build-up is interesting as Suissa lets us in on details of this society, where a millionaire social media queen lives in her own castle all by herself since 15, when, on discovering her parents were taking all her money, she legally divorces them and deliberately sends them to live in a houseboat because they’re sea-sick. It is a world where mothers are obsessed with seeing their kids become famous, more than the kid himself. The script introduces humour, too, while underlining sexual confusion a 17-year-old may harbour, through Charlotte’s line after a night of drunken partying: “I never had a boyfriend before, never had a girlfriend before… and now I have both and don’t know who to choose!” Suissa reserves one of the wittiest sequences for an end-credit scene where, “by the powers vested in a person by beapriestonline.com”, the film makes a serious case for “three-way harmony” to be officially solemnised. The goodlooking cast delivers adequately, and the film’s highlighting the dark side of social media stardom is interesting. In a scene, Vanessa threatens to ruin Tristan’s career. “Don’t care anymore, I’m done,” he replies in a tired voice. The scene is an eerie reminder of the burnout process a social media celebrity is prone to undergo at some point.
Yet, the story goes nowhere with such ideas. The film could have been much more as an exploration of the teen psyche in the time of social media but the narrative chooses to use that backdrop to set up teenybopper mush that barely moves beyond the banal. By the time Tristan plays out the mandatory cliche of saving Celene from a mishap (in this case, drowning), this melodrama about a virgin girl and a bad boy has turned too hackneyed for you to care anymore.
This is okay fare if you love anything with teenybopper flavour, but that’s about it. Somehow, Cruel Intentions, made all those decades ago, still seems like a more thrilling ride.
Rating: 2 (out of 5 stars)
Dangerous Liaisons is streaming on Netflix
Vinayak Chakravorty is a critic, columnist, and film journalist based in Delhi-NCR.
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