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Cruel Intentions (1999) March 30, 2005

Posted by Dragan Antulov in Film Reviews.
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A Film Review

Copyright Dragan Antulov 2005

Although faced with long-term creative crisis, Hollywood very reluctantly takes literary classics as the basis for its commercial movies. The reason for that is in its dependence on predominantly teenager audience, which has little understanding for any kind of literature, especially literature written centuries ago. However, in late 1990s some of Hollywood producers found a way to solve this problem – they would simply borrow plots and put them in the modern setting, while the characters would be transformed in modern-day teenagers. LES LIAISONS DANGEROUS, classic 1782 novel by French author Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, has already served as a basis for highly-regarded 1988 Hollywood adaptation DANGEROUS LIASIONS, directed by Stephen Frears. Eleven years later, same novel served as a basis for 1999 version CRUEL INTENTIONS, written and directed by Roger Kumble.

The plot is set in modern-day New York and the protagonists are people with lifestyle not that different from aristocracy of pre-revolutionary France – teenage children of American upper class who were born with the silver spoon in their mouths and whose life revolves around alcohol, sex, drugs, fast cars and any luxury imaginable. Two such specimens are half-siblings Sebastian Valmont (played by Ryan Philippe) and Kathryn Merteuill (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar). While the former deflowers debutantes for sport, the latter uses sex to rule her prep school as supreme manipulator. Good-looking Sebastian, who got bored with easy conquests, decides to make a bet with Kathryn– he must have sex with Annette Hargrove (played by Reese Witherspoon), daughter of their prep school principal and self-declared proponent of virtue. If he succeeds, Kathryn will fulfil his perverse and incestuous fantasies; if he loses, he will have to give up his vintage 1956 Jaguar. Sebastian gets to work, but Annette proves to be much harder conquest that he has imagined and things don’t get better when he begins having some genuine romantic feelings for her.

CRUEL INTENTIONS isn’t the first attempt to make a modern film version of LES LIAISONS DANGEROUS. In 1959 Roger Vadim had his own, not particular successful, attempt. CRUEL INTENTIONS should have been much better, and for two reasons – it was made with “R” rating in mind and, therefore, with less content limitations that plagued other teen movies. So, the audiences in 1999 had rare opportunities to watch teenagers use profanities, abuse drugs and engage in all kinds of unorthodox sexual practices. With almost every character being utterly amoral or stupid, CRUEL INTENTIONS also had potential of being great “guilty pleasure”. To a certain degree, film fulfils that promise. Sarah Michelle Gellar, although far from the standards set by Glenn Close in 1988 version, is incredibly effective as evil, manipulative character so different from the hero of BUFFY, THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. Ryan Phillippe is also good in his role of high-school heartthrob. Unfortunately, Reese Witherspoon fails to have chemistry with Philippe, despite being romantically linked with him in real life. Some supporting players are, however, very good, especially Selma Blair in the role of naïve Cecile.

At the very end of the film, CRUEL INTENTIONS betrays its concept by having something that WILD THINGS – film very similar in tone – didn’t have. Instead of showing the world of New York youth aristocracy as corrupt and beyond hope in its decadence – just like pre-revolutionary France – Kumble bows to 1990s Hollywood conventions and injects combination of syrupy sentimentality, “politically correct” pseudo-feminism, tragically inadequate score and poor direction. The film which was supposed to be “guilty pleasure” ends guilty of not living to its potential.

RATING: 4/10 (+)

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