Dangerous Liaisons review – a classic novel becomes Gossip Girl in powdered wigs

Put aside Choderlos de Laclos’ novel. Forget the magisterial 1988 film version starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich. The new eight-part Starz adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons (Prime Video) is billed as the origin story of the marquise de Merteuil and vicomte de Valmont we know and love-hate. You’re better off thinking of it as Bridgerton in France. Gossip Girl in powdered wigs. Game of Thrones in silks, slaying only reputations. Which is to say: park your brain at the door and enjoy the ride.

We are in Paris, 1793. Les peasants are revolteeng, but Camille (Alice Englert) and Pascal (Nicholas Denton) are young and in love and care nothing for the scent of revolution in the air, nor the terrible script they have been tasked with delivering. Nor for any kind of French accent. Englert in fact seems to be aggressively Englishing hers instead, which does make it hard to understand on occasion. “Take me somewhaa I’m not paaaaawh!” she says breathlessly to Pascal. When he spins a dreamy yarn about how that might be accomplished, she slightly unfairly asks, “Have you forgotten my dat?” This, it transpires, means “debt”. Camille (the marquise de Merteuil-to-be) is a courtesan in hock to her madam. Pascal (the vicomte de Valmont come the day) is a mapmaker with a side hustle in seducing rich, titled ladies in the hope of being rewarded with riches and a title.

One of his ladies is the current marquise de Merteuil, Genevieve (Lesley Manville, somehow grounding the show while soaring above it all), who has foolishly poured her heart out in letters to him (this is ye olden days’ equivalent of sending nudes, children) and now wants them back. Hmm – oui mais non, says her stripling lover. Alors, says the marquise, and carries on sleeping with him while she works out what to do.

The answer comes when Camille’s friend Victoire (Kosar Ali) – no great fan of le petit mapmaker – steals the letters from him and Camille discovers that Pascal has been playing hide the saucisson not just with Genevieve but several others, too. They take them to the marquise and trade them for an introduction to high society. Genevieve, heartbroken about her lover’s betrayal, steps through the stages of grief and arrives rapidly at the lesser-known sixth stage: Massive and Ongoing Vengeance. She begins training Camille out of the ways of the cheap courtesan and into the ways of trading sex for palaces rather than centimes. Camille’s glow-up begins with a Pretty Woman-esque wardrobe fitting and trip to the opera, where Genevieve takes a minute out of her busy bewigging schedule to kick Pascal in the virtual noisettes and send him on his way.

Pascal, meanwhile, has only his penis to work with. From second-tier project Florence de Regnier (gloriously played with a fibrillating edge of madness by Paloma Faith) he gets a gold clock, which won’t do.

Because they are not yet their fully poisonous adult selves, Pascal is keen to get back into Camille’s good graces, which – for … reasons – requires seducing the look-how-pious-I-am Jacqueline de Montrachet (Carice Van Houten), and eliciting epistolary proof after the fact.

From there, it’s just a roiling sea of absurdity. Scam builds upon scam, scandale follows scandale and everybody – except the rightly exasperated Victoire – has a whale of a time. Including the viewer, despite (or perhaps, morally corrupt horrors that we are too, because of) some atrocious dialogue and a liberal scattering of terrible performances.

For all that it is about love, sex and the deceits that come with it, this Dangerous Liaisons resists becoming encumbered by any deeper messages about the damage people are willing to do to each other to get ahead. It’s about watching Camille learn the manipulative ropes from a mistress of them and seeing how far she can get on her wits alone. This can get a touch repetitive – you might need to do an episode or two at a time rather than binge-watch the lot – but that’s the common weakness of all but the most riotous escapist fare.

In short, give up, kick back, relax and enjoy. Clear your mind of any thoughts of how Pierre C de L must be spinning in his grave. Resistance to the accumulating absurdities is useless. As a wise, if endlessly malevolent man once almost said: it’s beyond your control.