In a pair of sumptuous drawingrooms, one in a Parisian mansion, the other in a chateau on a luxurious estate in the countryside surrounding Paris, two aristocrats are very bored. The Marquise de Merteuil decides, therefore, to construct a little intrigue for her own amusement and the amusement of her former lover, the Vicomte de Valmont. The Marquise is aware that a young girl of good family, Cécile Volanges, has only just left the convent so that she can be married to the Comte de Gercourt. Now, the Marquise has a bone to pick with this particular Comte, and so she suggests to the Vicomte that he seduce and debauch Cécile to create a scandal and humiliate Gercourt. Valmont accepts the Marquise's proposal somewhat coolly, since he already has his eyes on another prey, the highly religious Présidente de Tourvel, the chaste wife of a member of Parliament. But, never one to refuse a challenge, Valmont suggests that he and the Marquise enter into a slightly different bet: if he can obtain written proof that he has slept with the Présidente, the Marquise must yield herself to him.
Meanwhile, Cécile has been presented to society, and in society she meets the charming and gentle Chevalier Danceny. Danceny becomes Cécile's music teacher and slowly, with a little coaxing from the Marquise de Merteuil, the two young people fall in love. During this time, Valmont is out in the country on his aunt's estate, trying to turn the Présidente de Tourvel's head. He has very little luck in this department despite his use of every known trick in the book. Then, as coincidence would have, Cécile's mother, Madame Volanges, who corresponds regularly with the Présidente de Tourvel, happens to say some rather unflattering things about Valmont in a letter which Valmont just happens to steal and read. And thus it is that Valmont resolves to seduce the little Volanges as revenge for her mother's only too accurate trash-talk.
Cécile's "seduction" would be more accurately termed "rape," but the girl is persuaded to enter into a bizarre student-teacher relationship with Valmont, so that for a while she is being courted by Danceny and "loved" nightly by Valmont. During his time as Cécile's teacher, Valmont is also able to win the heart of the Présidente de Tourvel.
However, the Marquise de Merteuil is not so easily pleased. Rather than encourage the Vicomte de Valmont to meet the conditions of their original agreement, she mocks him for having fallen in love with the Présidente de Tourvel. Valmont's pride does not withstand these attacks very well, and to avoid compromising his reputation as a good-for-nothing gigolo, he leaves the Présidente cold, with no explanation. Cécile fares no better, after a particularly rough night in Valmont's room, she miscarries his child.
Now things are really looking bad for everyone involved. The Présidente de Tourvel removes herself to a convent where she proceeds to die of grief and shame. Merteuil and Valmont are never able to reconcile their little snit and can only agree to go to war with one another. Danceny learns that Valmont seduced Cécile and challenges him to a duel; and Danceny wins the duel. Valmont hands over his correspondence with the Marquise to Danceny on his deathbed; all of society learns of her schemes and machinations. The Marquise is forced to flee town and, like a wicked old witch, is never heard from again. Full of regret for her activities with Valmont, Cécile returns to the convent from whence she came, with the intention of becoming a nun.