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STEPHEN FREARS' "Dangerous Liaisons" is a great film, one of the great films of last year -- no "ifs" or "ands" and only one "but" that I can think of. The qualifying "but" is this: it was based on Christopher Hampton's play and is long and talky. But most of the talk is brittle and brilliant and all of it is directed with astounding grace and is necessary to set up the haunting final devastation.

It's an elegant, erotic and gorgeously photographed tour through a wickedly artificial 18th century aristocratic world in which people can articulate anything and everything but the emotions that finally destroy them.

It has been playing in several major cities since mid-December but wasn't originally scheduled to open in Buffalo until Feb. 17. That opening has been hastily bumped up to today when it opens, rated R, in the University Theater. It was far too good to have to wait for.

The film was based on Christopher Hampton's theatrical adaptation of one of the world's great novels -- Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses". It was reset in a modern ski resort and scored with music by Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey when it was made into a nastily satisfying film by Roger Vadim in 1959. Vadim's film had its own strengths but it doesn't begin to compare to Frears'.

Someone once said that there aren't much more than a dozen great plots in all of world literature (not all great books -- Dostoevysky's "Crime and Punishment," for instance -- have great plots).

"Oedipus Rex" has one of them and "Romeo and Juliet" another. "The Count of Monte Cristo," "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," and "Don Quixote" surely belong on that list. So does "Les Liaisons Dangereuses."

John Malkovich and Glenn Close play the principal combatants in the original fatal attraction. It's a savage Hobbesian world and eroticism is their principal weapon in the war of all against all. Once lovers, they now seduce various fresh-faced innocents for their mutual amusement.

The Vicomte de Valmont (Malkovich) and the Marquise de Merteuil (Close) exchange crystalline badinage on the gem-like perfection of their mutual depravity. "I thought betrayal was your favorite word," he says. "Oh no," she corrects him. "Cruelty."

It is she who maintains a furious control over their degenerate manipulations. Even as a girl, she says, "I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn't pleasure I was after but knowledge." The ultimate lesson of all her accumulated knowledge, she says, was this: "Win or die."

Both have a perverse, destructive, arachnid love for one another. But their way of indulging it is to set up far-flung games of "love and revenge". Valmont has set as his prime target the most virtuous woman he knows, Madame de Tourvel (Michelle Pfeiffer). If he can prove his seduction of Madame de Tourvel, says the Marquise, he can have her once again.

It was Laclos' sublime understanding that underneath all the erotic gamesmanship of libertinism, love is always a risk. And love, in this world, is the wild beast that can tear people apart.

The pleasure of wickedness is undeniable but it's also limited.

These games aren't always clever. One seduction comes uncomfortably close to rape. The sudden violence of Valmont's "seductions" is an indication that beastliness can't be denied (the great 18th century writers were awfully fond of counterposing social refinement and morals in extremis).

Stephen Frears has always been an extremely fine film director (especially in "Sammy and Rosie Get Laid") but it almost seems as if his work, thus far, has been a warm-up for "Dangerous Liaisons." This is as beautiful an adaptation of a play as I've ever seen. Philipe Rousselot's photography is magnificent, the music by George Fenton is close to perfect in its aptness and Mick Audsley edited the film with uncommon grace.

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