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Cruel Intentions

Review by Gregory Avery
Posted 5 March 1999

  Written and Directed by Roger Kumble,
based on the novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuse"
by Choderos de Lacros.

Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe,
Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Sean Patrick Thomas,
Joshua Jackson, Louise Fletcher,
Swoozie Kurtz and Christine Baranski

"ARVE YOUR NAME INTO MY ARM!..." yowl the music group Placebo at the beginning of "Cruel Intentions", in which the writer/director Roger Kumble has updated Choderos de Lacros' Les Liaisons Dangereuse to the high school set -- or, more specifically, the prep set. The 18th century French aristocrats the Marquise de Merteuil and the Viscount Valmont are now stepbrother and stepsister, living in a big New York City apartment off Central Park, filled with draperies and antique furniture. Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) makes a wager with Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) that he can seduce Annette (Reese Witherspoon), who has just published a "manifesto" in "Seventeen" magazine espousing the virtues of chastity. If he fails, she gets the keys to his 1958 Porsche Jaguar convertible. If he wins, she says, shaking her hips, she'll let him have something he's been "obsessing about ever since our parents got married". The extremely skillful and artful intrigues and motivations of the original material have been reduced down to two kids who have the hots for each other.

Roger Vadim has previously succeeded in doing an updated version of the novel in 1959, where the two lead characters were married and living in an open relationship among the international "jet set". Roger Kumble has, rather haughtily, proclaimed that he has not read the novel, but he has seen a video of the 1988 Stephen Frears film, an excellent adaptation of Christopher Hampton's period stage adaptation. But Kumble has grossly misunderstood the material. The coldness and cruelty behind the Marquise de Merteuil and Valmont's actions came from an encroaching sense of disillusionment, and disappointment, in their lives. Kathryn being upset about being "dumped" by guys, and Sebastian complaining about being sick and tired of dealing with "insipid Manhattan debutantes", simply is not the same thing.

Besides, seducing, entrapping and deceiving people may make sense if it's done by an adult: they have a wider playing field. Teenagers -- at least, the ones I know -- are more concerned about being socially accepted. They wouldn't be caught dead rolling their eyes and making "oh, brother!"-type expressions the way Kathryn and Sebastian do every single time they turn their backs on someone in this film. (Sophistication should not be confused with being snide.) And Kumble has reduced the material in other ways, as well. The relationship between the young, inexperienced Cecile (Selma Blair) and her music teacher (Sean Patrick Thomas), treated as an example of honest, untainted love in the original story, has been turned, here, into gross burlesque, with Blair's character bawling and getting all blobby-faced in front of the camera, which treats her with as much contempt as the characters in the film who are exploiting her. By contrast, the adults have been virtually emptied out of the film (we never even see Kathryn and Sebastian's parents), and Valmont's aunt, who was originally depicted as being devoted to him even while seeing him for the kind of person that he was, is now a mere walkthrough for the powerhouse actress Louise Fletcher.

Ryan Phillippe does show considerable range, and ironic ability, as an actor in this picture -- not what I would have expected from the lox who appeared in "54", last year. His ingratiating performance may draw attention to the film it might otherwise not have gotten. (As for Sarah Michelle Gellar, I will give her this: She tries.) Roger Kumble shows that he has a way with turning a particularly wicked line or two. But he should put it to use in other material where it would do some good.

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