The Fair-Faced villain

Here is another in the “ancient or defunct class lecturette” series–this is from DU’s Villains, Monsters and Foes. It introduces the concept of the Fair-Faced Villain. The readings/viewings that week were: the play Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Christopher Hampton (as well as the 1988 movie version), Star Wars: the Phantom Menace, and of course we revisited our previous readings: the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, as well as short critical/analytical pieces and folktales, such as Bluebeard.   ~Jenn


The Fair-Faced Villain                          

Meet it is I set it down, that one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.[1]

When confronted with a Darth Maul, we know instinctively that this is something to be shunned, and depending on the circumstances and our character we either flee or fight it. But how do we fight a Darth Sidious; how do we fight the evil that seduces rather than threatens us? In many ways, the wolves in sheep’s clothing are far more dangerous than obvious foes—their work can be done quietly, unnoticed and unchecked. The knight with the shining sword may take down dragons, but is helpless against the rot eating away at the castle’s foundation. A different sort of hero is required for this foe, for it is a completely different battle.[2]

The Fair-Faced Villain is much harder to detect than the Monster. There is no ugly face, no bestial behavior (at least not that you see, until maybe it’s too late). So how does a poor hero vanquish such a foe, let alone even find him?


Glenn Close’s Marquise de Merteuil surveys her mask in 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons.

The Vicomte de Valmont feels invincible, and so does his partner in crime, the Marquise de Merteuil. The evils they do are about domination—sexual, financial, social power. Merteuil puts it best when she asks poor Cecile about her rape. Well, it wasn’t really a rape, was it? she says, I mean did he force you? Did he threaten you and tie you up? No, responds Cecile. It’s just that “he has a way of putting things, you just can’t think of an answer.” Merteuil has the same talent for domination, she describes it to Valmont thus: “When I want a man, I have him; when he wants to tell, he finds he can’t. That’s the whole story.”  Until the Vicomte falls prey to the one flaw he never imagined would happen to him: he actually falls in love, truly, which (as any of us know who have been in love) makes masks impossible. Once the Fair-Faced Villain’s façade is removed, the villain is no longer powerful. Hence, Valmont dies in a lover’s duel. In the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons, Merteuil is de-masked by a large audience: a big group of heroes who spot the crack in her façade, point it out loudly and publicly. Now, as you’ll recall, in the play our evil Marquise (SPOILERS) is still going along the way she always has, the villainess not even overtly affected by Valmont’s death. Only the image of the guillotine shadowing her closing lines give us any inkling her days as a Fair-Faced villain are numbered. This is why I have selected the 1988 version of this play: the ending is not of the play, but such a clear metaphor of her demise. The Academy Awards clip of Glenn Close’s Merteuil silently wiping off her makeup shows physically the metaphor of the dissipated power of the de-masking–you can see her cool smile dissolving even as the lipstick smears.

The Monster is like a mugger: you hand over your money, flee or fight him, then call the police with a description. The Fair-Faced Villain is like a con artist: once you realize you’ve given her your money, there’s nothing to say to the police. Herein lies the special danger of the Fair-Faced Villain: like Iago in Othello or Palpatine in Star Wars, the hero often doesn’t realize the villain is a villain until it’s too late.

But every Fair-Faced Villain has a crack in the façade—a fatal flaw in the mask. If a hero can find it and expose the wolf under the sheepskin, the villain can be vanquished.



[1] Shakespeare, Hamlet

[2] Shanti Fader. “In Sheep’s Clothing: the face of evil in the Phantom Menace.” Parabola Winter 1999,p. 88-91.



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