Dangerous Liaisons, by Pierre-Ambroise-François Choderlos de Laclos, was first published in Paris in 1782, seven years before the fall of the Ancien Régime and the beginning of the civil war now known as the French Revolution. It can be seen as the quintessential expression of the excesses and evils of that ridiculously wealthy, and soon-to-be-headless, minority of the population of 18th-century France, the aristocracy. But it is also a chronicle of the timeless difficulties of sex and love, an unrelentingly realistic portrayal of the desires that are beyond the control of all men and women.
The never-ending quest for power and pleasure in Dangerous Liaisons certainly helps the reader understand why the aristocracy was heading for unhappy end, but it also helps to explain why the novel had to be written in the epistolary form (in letters). In the world of high society of the time, the letter was the primary form of literature, and probably the only kind of literature most women would ever be able to compose. Thus the letter was a hot commodity and a familiar form. And, although Dangerous Liaisons was conceived in the traditional epistolary form and inherited its tone from the sentimental novels of literature written in France and England from 1750–1800, it is completely untraditional in its treatment of multiple, realistic characters.
At the time of its publication, Dangerous Liaisons was so shocking and exciting to Parisian society that the first edition sold out in under a week. Subsequent editions flew off the shelves in even less time. However, any respectable young lady who wished to read about the adventures of the Vicomte de Valmont or the machinations of the Marquise de Merteuil had to lock herself in her bedroom to even open the novel without fear of a scandal. All of Paris nevertheless found some secret way to enjoy Laclos's tale of intrigue: Marie Antoinette's personal copy was discovered in her library, long after she herself had paid a permanent visit to the Guillotine, bound in an unmarked wrapper. As for Laclos, he was referred to everywhere as "that monster." It was said of the author at the time of the book's publication that, "Because he has portrayed monsters, people will have it that he is one."
But even after the society in which it takes place had long since disappeared, Dangerous Liaisons continued to earn a reputation as a work of intentional and corrupting immorality. Parisian authorities even went so far as to ban the book in 1824. Perhaps the tradition of suppressing this novel began because it does contain something of real danger. A dark pessimism resides in its faultlessly composed letters. Behind the impeccable conception and execution of the book lurks a real doubt about the capacity of human beings to love one another with sincerity. However, in the past two decades Dangerous Liaisons, depressing undercurrents and all, has been popular with the sunny studios of Hollywood, CA. The 1988 movie of the same name corseted Glenn Close, Uma Thurman, and Michelle Pfeiffer, and allowed audiences to see what John Malkovich and Keanu Reeves look like in stockings and very tight sateen breeches. And, for those who prefer the high-school version, there is always 1999's Cruel Intentions. One warning of possible danger: do not watch either movie expecting to see the whole, unabridged plot of the novel.