Few characters in world literature are more sinister than the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont.
That hasn’t prevented readers from being fascinated by the two schemers for more than 200 years. “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” Choderlos de Laclos’s 1782 epistolary novel, has been translated into countless languages.
The story of how an innocent girl and a married woman are corrupted and driven to despair has found its way to the stage and has been adapted for the screen three times.
In the most successful of the three movies, Stephen Frears’s 1988 “Dangerous Liaisons,” John Malkovich played the demonic seducer. Now he’s back in Paris, directing Christopher Hampton’s play, on which the film was based, at the venerable Theatre de l’Atelier.
His troupe is young, and the publicity promises a contemporary look at the old material.
The opulence of the movie has been whittled down to an almost bare set with cheap furniture and a vaguely palatial backdrop. The actors wear crinolines and redingotes over jeans.
They still write and read letters -- the novel contains 175 of them -- yet they also use cellphones, mostly for taking pornographic pictures. They never leave the scene: When they have nothing to do, they sit down in a corner and watch their colleagues.
No-frills stagings can work provided you have good actors at hand. That’s where the shoe pinches.
Julie Moulier and Yannik Landrein are simply too young to be convincing as the cynical tandem. It’s almost moving to watch the attempts of these brave kids to appear callous and depraved.
Among the rest of the cast, Rosa Bursztejn stands out as Cecile who is deflowered by Valmont and becomes a nymphomaniac. Here a comic talent seems to be in the making.
The evening reminded me of the tradition at the Conservatoire National Superieur d’Art Dramatique, France’s national acting school, to open its doors to outsiders twice a year: Although discoveries are few and far between, it’s always fun to have a peek at the students’ work.
It would have been instructive to compare Laclos’s dry-eyed view of 18th-century aristocrats with “La Dame aux Camelias,” Alexandre Dumas Fils’s sentimental 1852 play about love among members of the 19th-century bourgeoisie.
Sadly, the Theatre de l’Odeon has entrusted the old warhorse to Frank Castorf, a paragon of what the Germans call “Regietheater,” or director’s theater.
A glimpse into the program informs you that Dumas’s text has been stirred into “The History of the Eye,” Georges Bataille’s obscene novel, and “The Mission,” Heiner Muller’s drama about a slave revolt in Jamaica.
Marguerite, the eponymous heroine, is played by four actresses -- presumably because she symbolizes all female victims of society.
While she is dying on the upper floor of what looks like a Brazilian favela, her former lover Armand (Jean-Damien Barbin) downstairs has audible problems with his digestion.
Another character with a top hat, addressed as “Alexandre” (Vladislav Galard), seems to be the author of the play. He prepares a soup and a chicken for his ailing hero who then throws them up.
Later, Armand morphs into Hitchcock’s Norman Bates and, dressed as a woman, stabs one of the four Marguerites in the shower. Her body, wrapped like a parcel, emerges from a cardboard coffin while Muammar Qaddafi and Silvio Berlusconi grin down from a giant poster.
Another scene, for no discernible reason, is entirely spoken in Russian with French surtitles. The set (Aleksandar Denic) is dominated by a rotating neon sign “Anus Mundi Global Network”.
All this is doubtless very deep. Unfortunately, you’d better be a post-structuralist to understand what it all means.
“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” runs at the Theatre de l’Atelier. Information: http://www.theatre-atelier.com. “La Dame aux Camelias” is at the Theatre de l’Odeon through Feb. 15. Information: http://www.theatre-odeon.eu.
What the stars mean: **** Outstanding *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars) Worthless
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)