Fear of loss of control is a common obstacle to love in romance novels. It’s often the alpha male hero, in particular, who can’t imagine himself giving power to his potential beloved because, then, he wouldn’t be entirely in control of his heart.
Dangerous Liaisons — I’ve recently re-read the novel and re-watched the movie — insists that love is all about control. The story plays out through the eyes of two consummate players, the Marquise de Merteuil (played by Glenn Close in the film version) and the Vicomte de Valmont (movie: John Malkovich). At first, they appear to join forces to pull the strings, but soon they realize neither can tolerate the other’s dominance.
The worst thing either can do, in such a game, is to lose control. Ironically, the Marquiseuses Valmont’s fear of that very event to control his behavior, manipulating him to destroy his lover while parroting the phrase “it’s beyond my control” (in the novel, this takes place through letters).
I am fascinated by the interplay between Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil. What is so inspiring for me (for my writing, not my ethics!) is the way in which their ultimately deadly game is played within the constraints of their society. They do not openly flaunt the rules; in fact, part of the fun, for the Marquise in particular, is to appear to enforce them upon others.
The Marquise appears to decide, early in life, that the one real power a woman has is within sexual and romantic relationships. Her goal is to ensure no man has ultimate power over her, and she is willing to sacrifice her own happiness to secure it.
I really appreciate the novel’s frank treatment of the position of women in her society. We see the option the Marquise has — to be Madame de Tourvel or Madame de Volanges — and her rejection of it. What’s unforgivable, I think, is her utter callousness. She wants to live as men do, live the way Valmont does. It annoys her when Valmont finds a woman like Madame de Tourvel lovable, I think — in part because she rejected becoming that woman.
In the movie version, the Marquise is further motivated by jealousy — jealousy of the younger woman Valmont prefers, in particular. At some point, she realizes that Valmont actually does love Madame de Tourvel, and that revelation hurts her, since, until that point, she thought they were in love with one another.
On his deathbed, Valmont insists he was the Marquise’s pawn. Perhaps he is, but, in the end, a woman’s reputation is everything, and the Marquise is shunned by polite society. Valmont wins, after all. Great read, great movie, disheartening moral.