The high-society intrigues, cold-blooded seductions, and backstabbing passions of Dangerous Liaisons make this 18th-century novel ripe for film adaptations. And since the emotions behind the story should ring just as true in the present day as in the past, why not update and transform the story, setting it in 1960s Paris? While we're at it, why not make the film version longer? More of the delicious intrigues will fit in three hours and twenty minutes of running time, after all. It's not such a terrible idea, but in the end, the 2003 adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses misses the point, and just delivers a bloated and unappealing walk-through of the plot.
A thumbnail sketch of Les Liaisons dangereuses is that it dresses up the characters from the novel – Madame de Mertuil (Catherine Deneuve), Valmont (Rupert Everett), Madame de Tourvel (Nastassja Kinski), and so on – in modern clothes, sets them in modern surroundings, and stands back to say "Look at how sophisticated this is!" Forget about developing the plot in an intriguing manner; we're just tossed in with the assumption that we'll enjoy seeing complete strangers discuss their love lives. Forget about character development: these are no more than stylishly-dressed cardboard figures.
It is, of course, impossible not to think of the brilliant and sparkling Dangerous Liaisons that starred John Malkovich and Glenn Close, in comparison, but even when resolutely thinking of Les Liaisons dangereuses on its own merits, it is flat and unappealing. None of the cast seem to be particularly interested in their roles, instead delivering their lines woodenly and without any spark. Even in a supposedly dramatic scene such as the final contest between Valmont and Danceny, the scene comes across as flat and uninvolving.
In the end, the stake through the heart of Les Liaisons dangereuses is that I just didn't care. Not for one minute was I the least bit interested in any of these characters or their convoluted plots: it's all cold, glamorous style and no substance.
This version of Les Liaisons dangereuses was originally created as a television miniseries, which accounts for the lengthy running time and the two-part structure. A 270-minute version is also available, but after seeing how dull the 200-minute version is, the 270-minute one would probably kill the viewer with boredom. There are also two different language options. One (which I reviewed) is all in its original French, with English subtitles; the other was apparently filmed with some of the actors delivering their lines in English, and the remainder dubbed in English. If you are going to subject yourself to this film, I would suggest at least doing it in the original language, with the French version.
Les Liaisons dangereuses is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Some sources indicate that the original aspect ratio was 2.35:1, but I was not able to determine whether that is correct or not.
In any case, despite the widescreen anamorphic treatment, it's still a lousy transfer, plagued by heavy edge enhancement and a substantial amount of grain in the image. The real killer, though, is the contrast, which is completely mishandled. Any part of the image that's not fully lit is much too dark, with detail wiped out; shadowy scenes or high-contrast shots with a dark foreground and a bright background are nearly unwatchable, as everything in shadow becomes featurelessly black.
On the bright side (such as it is), the English subtitles are optional.
The DVD version that I reviewed was the original French-language one, with Dolby 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 options. However, a Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is no guarantee of optimal sound quality. While the surround effects are handled well, creating a nice wrap-around effect with the musical score in particular, the rest of the track is decidedly weak. Dialogue is harsh and unpleasant-sounding, and in fact the dialogue in general is difficult to understand. The Dolby 2.0 alternative lacks the surround sound but retains the harshness of the dialogue, resulting in a flat and unappealing sound. Optional English subtitles are provided.
The special features offered here are minimal. There are filmographies of the main cast, and photo galleries with behind-the-scenes shots and production photos.
Bloated and completely uninvolving, Les Liaisons dangereuses is most notable as a way to steal away more than three hours of your time, leaving only a bad taste behind. Better to skip this uninteresting production entirely.