In pre-Revolution Paris, the Marquise de Merteuil plots revenge against her ex-lover, the Comte de Bastide, who has recently ended their relationship. To soothe her wounded pride and embarrass Bastide, she seeks to arrange the seduction and disgrace of his young virgin fiancée, Cécile de Volanges, who has only recently been presented to society after spending her formative years in the shelter of a convent.
Merteuil calls on the similarly unprincipled Vicomte de Valmont to do the deed. Valmont declines, as he is plotting a seduction of his own: Madame de Tourvel, the wife of a member of Parliament away in Corsica, who is currently a houseguest of Valmont’s aunt, Madame de Rosemonde. Amused and incredulous at Valmont’s hubris in pursuing the chaste, devoutly religious Tourvel, Merteuil ups the ante: if Valmont somehow succeeds in seducing Tourvel, and can furnish written proof, Merteuil will sleep with him as well. Never one to refuse a challenge, Valmont accepts.
Tourvel rebuffs all of Valmont’s advances. Searching for leverage, he instructs his page Azolan to seduce Tourvel’s maid Julie to gain access to Tourvel’s private correspondence. One of the letters he intercepts is from Cécile’s mother and Merteuil’s cousin, Madame de Volanges, warning Tourvel that Valmont is a nefarious and untrustworthy individual. Valmont resolves to seduce Cécile after all, as revenge for her mother’s accurate denunciation of him.
Meanwhile, in Paris, Cécile meets the charming and handsome Chevalier Raphael Danceny, who becomes her music teacher. They fall in love, with coaxing from Merteuil (who knows that Danceny, a poor commoner, can never qualify as a bona fide suitor).
Valmont gains access to Cécile’s bedchamber on a false pretense, sexually assaults her, and blackmails her into sex as she pleads with him to leave. On the pretext of illness, Cécile remains locked in her chambers, refusing all visitors. A concerned Madame de Volanges calls upon Merteuil to speak to Cécile, who confides in her, naively assuming that Merteuil has her best interests at heart. Merteuil advises Cécile to welcome Valmont’s advances; she says young women should take advantage of all the lovers they can acquire, in a society so repressive and contemptuous of women. The result is a “student–teacher” relationship; by day, Cécile is courted by Danceny, and each night she receives a sexual “lesson” from Valmont. In the meantime, Merteuil begins an affair with Danceny.
Meanwhile, Valmont somehow manages to win Tourvel’s heart, but at a cost: the lifelong bachelor playboy falls in love. In a fit of jealousy, Merteuil mocks Valmont and threatens to trash his reputation as a carefree gigolo. She also refuses to honor her end of their agreement, since Valmont has no written proof that the relationship has been consummated. Valmont abruptly dismisses Tourvel with a terse excuse: “It is beyond my control.” Meanwhile, after a night in Valmont’s bed, Cécile miscarries his child.
Overwhelmed with grief and shame, Tourvel retreats to a monastery where her health deteriorates rapidly. Valmont warns Danceny of Merteuil’s ulterior motives in seducing him; she retaliates by informing Danceny that Valmont has been sleeping with Cécile. Danceny challenges Valmont to a duel, and mortally wounds him. With his dying breath, Valmont asks Danceny to communicate to Tourvel—by now near death—his true feelings for her. He gives Danceny his collection of intimate letters from Merteuil, and Danceny publishes them. All of Paris learns the full range of her schemes and depredations. Humiliated at the opéra by her former friends and sycophants, Merteuil flees Paris in disgrace.