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"I need you for my revenge."
DVD ReviewIt may be a couple of centuries too late, but Choderlos de Laclos should be sure to send his agent a fruit basket for all the work that's coming his way. Laclos's 1782 epistolary novel is the source material for this slinky French production, which is at least the fifth cinematic incarnation of the material—Roger Vadim's Les Liaisons dangereuses 1960 remains spry; the English-language 1988 version triumphs with Malkovich, and especially Uma Thurman and Michele Pfeiffer (and despite Keanu Reeves), with Christopher Hampton's bristling script; Milos Forman had a go at it with Valmont; and Laclos went back to high school with Reese, Ryan, and Buffy and their Cruel Intentions.
So why go at it again? Because it's a great, mean, nasty bit of business, featuring characters doing all sorts of horrible things to one another, in and out of the boudoir, for our amusement. Here the action has been pushed forward a couple of centuries, to allow the designers to run riot with the best of the 1960s; the story pretty much holds up, though. Rupert Everett plays Valmont, notorious womanizer—he takes virtuous women as a challenge, and considers the deflowering of virgins affianced to others to be part of his job description. His opposite number is Madame de Merteuil, played by Catherine Deneuve, a shark of a woman who uses her bedroom as a place both of delight and torture. There's one thing she sure doesn't like to hear, however, and that's "no." Decades ago, Gercourt more or less left her at the altar; Merteuil is shocked and appalled to learn that now he is to be married to Cecile de Volanges (Leelee Sobieski), young enough to be Gercourt's granddaughter, and Merteuil's own goddaughter. Valmont, then, is to be Merteuil's instrument of revenge: she asks him to rid Cecile of her virginity, and knock her up to boot. That way Gercourt wears the cuckold's horns, and the heir to the house of Gercourt will in fact be a Valmont.
Alas, things go awry. In order to keep his own inheritance in line, Valmont visits with his aging aunt, who has another houseguest—the beautiful and impossibly virtuous Madame de Tourvel (Nastassja Kinski), whose husband, in the diplomatic corps, has been dispatched to Africa. Valmont has no interest in shooting fish in a barrel—i.e., seducing Cecile, embarrassing Gercourt—in the face of a daunting challenge like Tourvel; and Merteuil is none too happy about what he's put at the top of his To Do list. Many, many hijinks ensue.
This isn't great or legendary stuff, and has the feel frequently of a soap opera—but then, people get attached to their stories for exactly this reason. So if what's here isn't an epic meditation on the human condition, it sure beats the tar out of a few weeks' worth of All My Children. The two leads aren't exactly miscast, but they each have some issues. Everett looks every inch the rapscallion, but my guess is that his French isn't very good, as the whole performance seems to have been looped. There's also a series of conceits layered into the source material that never really come off—I've never been convinced that Valmont truly carries some bizarre torch for Merteuil, or that he genuinely falls that hard for Tourvel. (Choderlos, get me rewrite.) Deneuve is now a woman of a certain age, and seems rather too old for this part, especially opposite Everett. (But hey, Catherine Deneuve at any age is always easy on the eyes.) Oh, and in case you were worried about this: an opening title card assures us that Mme. Deneuve wears Gaultier. Especially good in their more subsidiary roles are Sobieski, and Kinski, who is delicate and lovely as a woman at war with herself, virtue on the one hand, passion on the other. She's sincere without being sanctimonious, and towards the end particularly, is just heartbreaking.
The pace is leisurely, and you may find yourself many beats ahead of the story, especially if you've seen other versions—there are lots of scenes that begin with cars pulling into driveways, or people walking up flights of stairs. But there's so much that's luscious in the landscape, the costume design, and especially the vintage automobiles that you'll probably hang with it. (Wellspring is simultaneously releasing an even longer cut of this production, with yet another hour of footage—the story must crawl along there, but the clothes must be sensational.) Mores have changed some in the centuries, and we don't write letters like we used to, so Merteuil's comeuppance doesn't have the same sort of impact; still, there's so much here that's glossy and fabulous and snarky that just getting to see this story put through its paces in high style is entertainment enough.
Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The blacks are a little murky, and as the story goes on, director Josée Dayan's palette gets darker; toward the end, some of the images lack sufficient resolution to perceive them properly. Otherwise, it's a pretty clean transfer, with little or no debris.
Image Transfer Grade: B-
Audio Transfer Review: Angelo Badalementi's score is moody and appropriate, and well balanced with the dialogue on both the 2.0 and 5.1 audio tracks.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 36 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
Cast and Crew Filmographies
Layers Switch: 01h:41m:31s
Extras Grade: C
Final CommentsAn old-fashioned potboiler with a beautiful cast, swanky cars, and Catherine Deneuve in Gaultier. C'est magnifique!
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