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Merteuil and Mirrors: Stephen Frears's Freudian Reading of Les Liaisons dangereuses Alan J. Singerman Choderlos de Laclos's notorious epistolary novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), portrays the agonistic relationship between two master libertines, the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil , and the catastrophic consequences of their efforts to dominate each other while pursuing their sadistic games of seduction and humiliation against lesser opponents. The libertine character, as mythically incarnated by Don Juan, has been subjected to extensive psychoanalytical study, including well-known analyses by Jean-Pierre Jouve and Otto Rank, as well as the more recent "Oedipal reading" by Peter Gay.1 Don Juan's comportement has been cited, for instance, as a striking example of the unconscious workings of a repressed, unresolved "Oedipal 1 Otto Rank summarizes the standard Freudian interpretation of the Don Juan character as follows: "D'après la psychanalyse les nombreuses femmes que Don Juan doit conquérir constamment représenteraient l'unique mère irremplaçable. Les concurrents et adversaires trompés, bafoués, combattus et finalement tués, représenteraient l'unique ennemi mortel invincible, le père" (Don Juan et le double [Paris: Payot, 1973), p. 124). Rank himself takes a somewhat different |->ychoanalytical view (see pp. 133-39), concentrating on the double symbolism of the secondary characters in relation to the libertine hero, that is, guilty conscience (Leporeilo) and the fear of death (the Commander); Jean-Pierre Jouve, Le Don Juan de Mozart (Fribourg: Librairie de l'Université, 1942), pp. 61, 105-6; Peter Gay, "The Father's Revenge," in Don Giovanni: Myths of Seduction and Betrayal, ed. Jonathan Miller (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 70-80. EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION, Volume 5, Number 3, April 1993 270 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FICTION fixation" (Gay, p. 76); that is, his repeated seductions of women are interpreted as phantasmal "repetitions" of the child's primal wish, buried deep in the psyche, to possess again the Mother from whom he was traumatically separated as a child. In the same Freudian context, Don Juan has been described variously as an impotent, a homosexual, and a narcissist.2 Surprisingly, very little reflection of this kind has been accorded Laclos's libertine protagonists, despite the obvious identification of die Don Juan and Valmont characters, widely recognized by readers from Baudelaire to Malraux and, more recently, by Peter Brooks, Henri Blanc, Bernard Bray, and Marina Warner.3 While occasional passing references to Merteuil's narcissism and her homosexual tendencies have surfaced, the psychoanalytical perspective has been generally neglected in discussions of the Liaisons dangereuses.* Stephen Frears and Christopher Hampton's recent screen adaptation of Laclos's novel, Dangerous Liaisons (1988), seems, however, to bring emphasis to bear precisely on the psychoanalytical dimensions of the Valmont and Merteuil characters in their relations widi each odier and with their victims. In addition to the preponderance of close-up shots, traditional signifiers of psychological analysis in the cinema, the mode of the film is established from the opening shot, in which we see the Marquise preening self-complacently before her vanity, a smug smile caressing her image in the mirror. Were this the only mirror scene in the film, we might be inclined to dismiss it as incidental. Mirrors are, to the contrary, seemingly omnipresent in the body of the film, whether it be in die intimate discussions between Merteuil and Valmont, the seduction of Tourvel, or the violent rupture scene between the Vicomte and the Présidente, to mention just the major examples. Moreover, the film comes full circle, closing with a final mirror scene in which a defeated, humiliated Marquise rubs off her cosmetic "mask" before the very same vanity at which 2 See, respectively, François-Régis Bastide, "La Peur d'aimer," Psyché 16 (1948), 188; Jouve, p. 61; and Rank, p. 86. 3 See Baudelaire's notes in Choderlos de Laclos, Œuvres complètes (Paris: Gallimard, 1951), pp. 712-21; André Malraux, Le Triangle noir: Laclos, Goya, Saint-Just (Paris: Gallimard, 1970), p. 31; Peter Brooks, The Novel of Worldliness (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), p. 182; Henri Blanc, Les Liaisons dangereuses de Choderlos de Laclos (Paris: Hachette, 1972), p. 82; Bernard Bray...


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