It’s a classic story of seduction and intrigue told with a 21st-century twist.
Théâtre français de Toronto’s latest project is a new version of the famous 18th-century novel “Les Liaisons dangereuses,” adapted as a web series and recentred on the perspectives of the women in the story.
Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s novel, first published in 1782, recounts an epic battle of cunning and will between the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, former lovers and members of the French nobility. The story has been frequently adapted, most famously in English in Christopher Hampton’s 1985 stage version, which starred Lindsay Duncan and the late Alan Rickman, and Stephen Frears’ 1988 film “Dangerous Liaisons,” starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.
Laclos’s novel is epistolary, meaning that it’s told through a series of letters. The clever twist in this new Théâtre français version is that a new batch of invented letters come to light, offering a new angle on the story. It’s therefore called “Les Liaisons dangereuses: Correspondances inédites,” or “Dangerous Liaisons: Unpublished letters.”
The project grew out of artistic director Karine Ricard’s desire to honor the company’s mandate: “We’re supposed to do classics. It’s the legacy, it’s what the theater is about; 54 years of doing classics,” she said.
During the pandemic, the company received funding to make digital projects and when she started a conversation with playwright Sébastien Bertrand about finding a classic to adapt, they discovered a shared interest in Laclos’s famous text.
But Bertrand paused after he picked up the book again. “He just said, ‘I don’t like how the women are portrayed,'” recalled Ricard. “Of course, it was written in the 18th century by a man. But he was like, ‘I want to bring more character to these women. I want to tell this story from their point of view,’” said Ricard.
Hence the conceit of the newly discovered letters (which are fictional, as were Laclos’s originals): they fill out the female characters’ stories and tilt the tale so that “we’re bringing Valmont down, instead of making him look like a hero at the end and Merteuil like the mean, mean queen,” said Ricard. “Women were a commodity at that time. That’s what we are trying to shine a light on … let’s not avoid what really happens here with the character of Valmont.”
This new approach also allows Bertrand and Ricard to address an aspect of the original novel that is particularly challenging from a contemporary perspective: that some of the sexual encounters are non-consensual, including one between Valmont (played in this version by Philip Van Martin) and a 15-year-old named Cécile (Hannah Forest Briand).
“It’s the words, it’s the exchange they’re having, it’s the intrigues, the tension between the characters that makes it so sexy,” said Ricard. “But there’s something underneath that’s not so sexy when you think of sexual abuse, especially when it comes to Cécile, who’s a minor.”
Ricard directed the eight-episode series, which Théâtre français filmed in March at the stately Windsor Arms Hotel in Yorkville. Originally, Ricard had imagined filming it inside a black-box theater but changed her mind when Bertrand delivered his adaptation. “The script is still very theatrical. They talk a lot, the language is beautiful,” she said.
Confident that the piece had strong reference points in the theatre, she decided “to film in a place that will make us feel like we are inside the story,” she said.
The decor of the Windsor Arms is such that “we didn’t have to do much to make it seem like it was the 18th century. Of course, we don’t have the budget to make it really accurate to the time and to the period, but we try to go as close as we could with the means that we had,” said Ricard. Further scenes were filmed at the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse Museum in Corktown.
Ricard has directed a few short films before but found herself feeling a bit overwhelmed as this project grew to the length of a feature film (the eight episodes together last 105 minutes). “I think I embarked on this journey a bit innocently,” she said, laughing. “So I surrounded myself with the best team possible. I think that’s the best thing to do as a director, surround yourself well.”
Also an actor, Ricard can be spotted in a cameo appearance in the series, as can the cinematographer Rodrigo Michelangeli: “We had so much fun with that,” she said.
The first three episodes are available to stream on the theatre’s website for free; access to the remaining episodes costs $15 a week.
“I have a feeling that people will binge-watch it,” said Ricard. “Once you’re in it, you’re going to want to see the next episodes right away.”
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