People are objects to be mastered, manipulated, used and dispensed of without any emotional attachment. This is the attitude, nay the raison d’être, of a pair of rich, decadent cynics - Madame de Merteuil (Catherine Deneuve), the director of a Music Foundation and Valmont (Rupert Everett), a photographer for Paris-Match. They are not as young as they once were but are keen to prove their powers of seduction as much as a challenge to each other as a boost to the belief in the power of their own fading beauty. Conquests of the young and the beautiful hold no real challenge for them – it is all too easy. Much more difficult is remaining friends and no longer lovers – each know the other is pure poison that would surely lead to their mutual destruction – yet the attraction is barely resistible.
A figure from Madame de Merteuil’s past makes a re-appearance. Gercourt once had a great hold over her, but left her without giving any reason. Madame de Merteuil fears returning to the vulnerability of loving someone and is troubled by the feelings he inspires in her once again. However, when she finds that he is actually engaged to her young goddaughter, Cécile (Leelee Sobieski), her wounded pride demands vengeance. Valmont would like to help her, but he has another potential victim to pursue. Visiting his aunt Rosemonde (Danielle Darrieux) in Saint Tropez, he meets Marie Tourvel (Nastassja Kinski), a virtuous, married woman – who moreover is well aware of his Don Juan reputation – a fact that only makes the chase all the more challenging and exciting for Valmont.
For the past number of years, Josée Dayan has directed high-profile, all-star adaptations of a number of huge French literary classics for French TV mini-series – The Count of Monte Cristo (1998), Balzac (1999), Les Miserables (2000). For this year’s summer blockbuster, the director made the intriguing choice of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses, already the subject of a number of successful film adaptations. To set it apart from other versions, scriptwriter Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt has updated the original setting from the 18th century to the 1960s. The change of period works well, but of course there is no reason why it shouldn’t. The subject matter of Les Liaisons Dangereuses is timeless - it’s entirely about the complex machinery of human emotions, human relationships and human sexuality. It could just as easily be set in the modern day - as it has already been done in Cruel Intentions (1999) - or in another culture, as it has been done in the Korean Chosun Dynasty version, Untold Scandal (2003), but the choice of the 1960s seems at least to allow a certain style to the sets, costumes and décor. Unfortunately, this is not taken far enough – apart from the costumes, a few 60’s soul-numbers and the use of telephones rather than letters, the characters in this adaptation still inhabit luxurious 18th century châteaux and a similar social milieux.
Comparisons between this and previous film versions are inevitable, and the TV mini-series doesn’t fare well by comparison. The script has none of the beautiful poetic concision of Christopher Hampton’s adaptation, Dangerous Liaisons – it is much too long-drawn out and loses the orgiastic hothouse quality of Frears' intense direction. Catherine Deneuve however is a magnificent Madame de Merteuil – icily cool, yet seductively dangerous. Rupert Everett – well, personally, I don’t think anyone could surpass John Malkovich’s malevolence in the role (certainly not Colin Firth in Milos Forman’s vacuous Valmont) – but he copes fairly well, even with his French dialogue, which is not dubbed. A little flat in intonation, but that’s Rupert Everett anyway. Deneuve and Everett’s verbal sparring works surprisingly well, but in Les Liaisons Dangereuses, a lot more depends on the chemistry between Valmont and Mme Tourvel, and it is here unfortunately where the TV version fails – the plot devices and the direction lacking the subtlety and plausibility that should bring us to a convincing denouement.
There is an intriguing hint in this version that Valmont’s sexual preferences go both ways, but that he reserves his worst for a particular vendetta against the female sex. I think this is an interesting misogynistic twist that Rupert Everett could have done something with if the idea had been developed further. Apart from a more convincing depiction of the connections between Gercourt and Merteuil however, giving Mme de Merteuil a more credible motive for revenge, the TV series doesn’t do anything with the source that has not been better presented and performed elsewhere.
The bad news is that this is only available on French DVD at present and the TF1 release doesn’t include English subtitles. It does include French subtitles though, if that is any good to anyone. The drama is in three parts stretching to almost 4½ hours. Parts 1 and 2 are on disc 1, running to 89 and 86 minutes respectively, Part 3 on disc 2 runs to 80 minutes. The second disc also includes a 50 minute interview with the director. The DVD release contains an additional 70 minutes of footage that wasn't included when it was premiered on French television in August 2003 in two 90 minute parts.
The picture looks video sourced and contains rather a high rate of artefacts and problems. The picture has problems coping with the low-lighting, soft candle-light and fire-lit locations, leading to a very soft image. Colours appear strong but bright colours, particularly deep reds and blacks are over-saturated, lacking detail and leading to colour bleed. In addition to this there is some video cross-colouration and an overall greenish tone which flattens the contrast. There are lots of digital artefacts, blocking and a fair amount of grain. Often though this can only be noticed in freeze-frame or close-up and is less evident during normal playback. Generally, it doesn’t look bad enough to spoil the film, but it is really far from great quality.
The actual sound recording is a little lacking technically. It is not always perfectly clear and often contains a fair amount of hiss. Sound editing can be noticed between live on-set recordings and post-production dubbing – although, I stress again, no-one actually appears to have had their voice overdubbed into French. The actual use of sound effects and Angelo Badalamenti’s soundtrack however come across perfectly in a nice Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a strong Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, which would lead me to think that the problems are more to do with the actual source recording rather than the sound transfer to DVD.
There are no English subtitles on the DVD. Optional French subtitles are provided and don’t appear to have hard-of-hearing captions.
Filmographies are provided for Catherine Deneuve, Rupert Everett, Nastassja Kinski, Leelee Sobieski and Josée Dayan.
Interview - Josée Dayan (50.21)
Dominique Besnehard conducts an excellent interview with the director, guiding her well through every aspect of the production. It's in French and there are no subtitles. There is a lot of talk about the different versions of the film, especially the Roger Vadim and Stephen Frears versions, which Dayan greatly admires. There is discussion of how the project started and was cast, comparing the actors to others who have played the roles. According to the director, Everett seemed to have a particular quality that no modern French actor could match for this particular role. The characters, the complexity of the plot, the characters, their emotions and the connections between them are discussed in depth. The choice of the period was deliberate because of the swinging sixties, 'La Dolce Vita' feel it afforded. Any later would have changed the moral and sexual context of the piece. It’s a fascinating interview, much better than a commentary track, allowing a much deeper examination of the whole project. Intriguingly, the director talks about an English version – this was an international co-production with an international cast – so it is possible that two different versions of the series were made – one in French and one in English.
On its own terms, Les Liaisons Dangereuses is great TV drama. It’s the original and the ultimate soap opera, portraying the complex and scandalous love lives of a group of outrageous characters. It’s certainly not the best version of the Laclos story out there, but it is an entertaining adaptation of a fantastic drama. I’m sure this will appear on UK television screens at some point, possibly in an English language version. I don’t know how that will compare, but it would certainly be worth a look.