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Region 4 DVD Reviews

Originally published in Australian HI-FI, Feb/Mar 2001, v.32/1

Dangerous Liaisons cover Dangerous Liaisons
Director: Stephen Frears
Starring: Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer
Cruel Intentions cover Cruel Intentions
Director: Roger Kumble
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe and Reese Witherspoon
Movie: A, Picture: B, Sound: B, Extras: C Movie: A-, Picture: A+, Sound: A, Extras: B+
Glenn Close's performance in this second of the four adaptions of the 1782 novel is perfection. It has to be. The production notes on this Warner DVD reveal that actors with wide theatre experience were mostly chosen, because the director fully intended many screen-filling shots of their faces. But it isn't only facial acting. Her body language, also driven by stage training, conveys as much as the script.

The script, in turn, is immaculate. Cruel Intentions left me occasionally wondering about the characters' motivations. Dangerous Liaisons leaves no such uncertainty. Close's character's reasons for being what she is are clear, despite being inexcusable.

Malkovich combines an 18th century limpidity with, by turns, extraordinary menace and irresistable charm. His progression from cruel desire to unrecognised love is subtler than Phillippe's (and Firth's in 1989's Valmont), and the more startling for being so. While Witherspoon's character in 1999's version remains largely self-controlled, Pfeiffer's switches abruptly from happy contentment to abject confusion as soon as Malkovich declares his (initially pretended) love. Uma Thurman is gorgeously poised and naive, possible only in a historical setting.

In 1988 Dangerous Liaisons received Academy Awards for Art Direction/Set Decoration and Costume Design. The DVD is consequently frustrating. For the most part, the splendour of the colours and detail were brought to my TV. But occasionally there were edges to faces surrounded by the sky, or the detail of embroidery became irritating artifacts flickering between the scan-lines of the TV. In general, though, the transfer to DVD is competent. Unfortunately, the film from which the transfer was made was far from pristine, with irritating specks appearing, particularly in the dark scenes of which there are many.

Still, the story, the dialogue, the characters and the mood draws one away from these defects.

The fourth and most recent film adaption of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, banned by the French Government in 1824, 42 years after its initial publication, pulls in an MA rating. Why? There's no nudity. Profane language is rare by today's standards. Perhaps it is because, in our censors' quaint terms for X-rated material, it is mostly concerned with sex.

But, then, so is the 1988 version. And the earlier one, despite some actual semi-nudity, is rated M. More likely, then, it is because the sex with which Cruel Intentions is concerned is sex in the New York of today, not the France of 200 years ago, and between teenagers rather than adults.

Still, with only the few plot alterations made necessary by the passage of two centuries, and the abandonment of the concept of 'death by broken heart', the two movies may be one. The main difference is in the characters. The earlier movie's reliance upon the fatal innocence of two of the main female characters is replaced by Witherspoon's healthy scepticism, built upon the wholesome character of a young woman brimming with rustic virtues, and Selma Blair's not-quite-coming-of-age naivete.

Gellar's manipulative streak is overshadowed by a superb performance from Phillippe. He seems to have studied Malkovich's work in the earlier version, joining the latter's camp menace with his own adolescent facade-building in powerful combination.

Cruel Intentions demonstrates the heights of DVD picture quality. The luscious interior and exterior shots, foreign to most depictions of New York, are detailed and rich. The Dolby Digital surround sound is fine and clean, while the surround material is appropriately unobtrustive. 'Collector's Edition' means extra features: a commentary sound track from the director and producer, a six minute 'Making Of' featurette, five deleted scenes amounting to eleven minutes and two music videos.

Aspect: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Sound track: Dolby Digital 5.1
Dubbed languages: Nil
Subtitles: 10
Features: Biographies and production notes
Aspect: 1.85:1 anamorphic
Sound track: Dolby Digital 5.1
Dubbed languages: 1
Subtitles: 19
Features: Featurette, Deleted scenes, Biographies

© 2001-2005, Stephen Dawson