The series premiere of the new Starz series Dangerous Liaisons was quite scandalous. The drama, which has already been renewed for a second season, gives viewers the origin story of two of literature's most infamous characters: the conniving Marquise de Merteuil and the equally dastardly Vicomte de Valmont. Their story was first told in the 1782 novel Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Since then there have been so many different versions in almost every medium imaginable. Multiple movies (including the 1988 Oscar nominated film Dangerous Liaisons and a modern re-telling in 1999's Cruel Intentions), stage shows, operas, and ballets all tell the story of these two people who will stop at nothing to exact their revenge.
"You can't just do another adaptation, it's got to mean something," series creator and executive producer Harriet Warner tells Metacritic. "You read the Marquise in the novel and she is extraordinary. That made me think I would love to know who she was and why she's done this and how she gets there. She is a fabulous character to explore and really bring to new territory."
Warner says that she was very invested in telling the story through this "incredible female character" while also staying true to the source material.
"In a way, Season 1 gives us the world of the novel, its seductions and strategies and wit and humor but I wanted to really bring the danger by creating a past that does carry huge stakes for her and for Valmont," she explains.
In the premiere, set in turbulent, pre-revolutionary 18th century France, Camille (Alice Englert) and Pascal Valmont (Nicholas Denton) are young and passionately in love. A destitute Camille believes Pascal will free her from living and working in a brothel. She accepts Valmont's proposal of marriage and foresees a happy future. What Camille does not know is that for his own survival, Valmont sleeps with wealthy women only to use their adoring and very graphic love letters against them. He's threatening his current paramour, the original Marquise de Merteuil (Lesley Manville) with the love letters she wrote him: Pay him off or he will tell her husband about their torrid affair.
When Camille discovers these letters, she feels betrayed. But a heartbroken Camille decides to get even. She and the Marquise form an alliance: She will give the Marquise her letters back if the Marquise will help Camille become part of the wealthy Paris aristocracy. The premiere ends with Camille victorious at the opera and Valmont distraught after he discovers the letters — truly the only currency he has — are gone.
"It's kind of a turning point of the season," Denton says. The series brings to life the well known cliché that there is indeed a fine line between love and hate. They are my favorite scenes. You change tact real quick when you want something from someone and it's that manipulations between the two of them, an obsession with the game. That was so easy for us to play. We're obsessed with playing this game. And once we get into it, it's kind of where the crux of our love is. Even amid the chaos that exists post that first episode, there is still that tie between Pascal and Camille. And I think that's really an exciting thing to see post that first episode."
Englert says the relationship between Camille and Pascal becomes "its own monster."
"You end up just playing to make the moves so you can keep playing with each other," she explains. "I think they feel safer with each other than with anybody else, which is sad for them given how appallingly they treat each other."
For Warner, first seeing these two enemies in love was key to this adaptation. "It was wonderful to go to that place where it was love. Camille and Valmont as a love story and a female/male power battle is a huge backdrop to the season," she says. "We really felt that it was wonderful to set up that world. 'Your lover is your future enemy' and 'It's not love, it's war' are two of the best lines of the novel. To find a way to feel the beginnings of those lines that was the ambition and aim of that first episode. We long for that place of innocence and simplicity and no agenda."
Eventually, as we know, the Marquise and Valmont will use people as pawns, rarely thinking of their emotions. Executive producer Colin Callender notes that the story is a "fractured, broken love story" featuring "amoral behavior of the two of them." But the "fun" of their series is following their journey as they embark upon it.
And as this first season unfolds, viewers will also see how Camille becomes the new Marquise.
"It's the navigation of the man's world," Warner says. "It's the feminist retelling of this story that you want to leave that first episode at a point where she's stepping into a power that she's creating."
Dangerous Liaisons airs new episodes at 9 p.m. Sundays on Starz and also