Cruel Intentions Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1999

Cruel Intentions LogoThe cast of Cruel Intentions

Kathryn is one of the most popular girls at school... listen to what she says.

When Choderlos de Laclos' novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" was first published in 1782, it created quite a stir in France as many of the book's readers began to draw parallels between the book's two conniving protagonists and some real-life members of the French aristocracy. Now, more than two hundred years after it was first published, this tale of sexual intrigue and betrayal still continues to fascinate, having spawned the Christopher Hampton stageplay and three films: Roger Vadim's "Dangerous Liaisons" from 1959, Milos Forman's "Valmont" from 1989, and the best adaptation to date, Stephen Frear's "Dangerous Liaisons" from 1988, which paired John Malkovitch ("Con Air") and Glenn Close("Air Force One"). Now, caught up in the demographic tidal wave of the Baby Boom Echo, yet another cinematic reworking has emerged, "Cruel Intentions". This time around, it's "Dangerous Liaisons" set in a high school. And unlike the recent spate of uninspired teen movies (such as "The Faculty", "She's All That", and "Jawbreaker"), this one actually works... for the most part.

I'm sick of sleeping with these insipid debutante girls... nothing shocks them anymore.

Sarah Michelle GellarRyan PhillipeReese Witherspoon'Selma Blair

"Cruel Intentions" recontextualizes the Eighteenth century novel by shifting the action from the bourgeoisie palatial country residences of the French aristocracy to the bourgeoisie summer homes of New York's upper crust. Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer") and her half-brother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillipe of "54" and "I Know What You Did Last Summer") are a couple of spoiled rich kids who spend their days conspiring devious schemes of seduction and sexual conquest. Having recently been dumped, Kathryn devises a plot to get even by having the irresistible Sebastian deflower her beau's new object of affection, the innocent yet naive Cecile (Selma Blair), transforming her into a juvenile Jezebel.

If I win, that hot little car of yours... mine.
And if I win?
Then I'll give you what you've been obsessing about since the day our parents got married.

Sebastian takes the assignment reluctantly, yet his boredom with such an 'unchallenging' task is apparent. Instead, Sebastian has set his sights on Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon of "Pleasantville"), a chaste girl who recently wrote an article in "Seventeen" magazine extolling the virtues of 'saving herself' until marriage. In addition to the challenge of seducing a pro-celibacy advocate, Sebastian is also lured by the fact that Annette is the daughter of the school's new headmaster. Believing that Sebastian doesn't have a chance in winning over the virginal Annette before the end of summer, Kathryn makes a wager. If Kathryn wins, she gets to keep Sebastian's 1956 Jaguar roadster. However, if he wins, Kathryn will allow Sebastian into her bed.

She's daddy's little girl, a paradigm of chastity and goodness.

At first, Annette is cold to Sebastian's wily charms, as she has been thoroughly warned about his ill reputation. But as Sebastian spends more and more time with her, Annette's defenses begin to soften, chipped away by his silvery tongue and acts of subtle manipulation. However, Sebastian soon comes to realize that the stakes of the game have transcended beyond those of a simple bet after he begins to fall in love with his latest mark. Of course, reconciling his feelings and the terms of his wager are the least of his worries.

Screwing the headmaster's daughter before school starts...think of what it will do for my reputation. She will be my greatest conquest.

"Cruel Intentions" is quite a refreshing change from some of the more recent attempts to attract teen audiences to their local megaplexes. In addition to a soundtrack of catchy pop-songs and a number of made-for-MTV moments, writer/director Roger Kumble has updated the story to reflect current-day social mores, while utilizing a lush production design that hints to the story's original context. But despite the different packaging, this latest incarnation remains very true to "Les Liaisons Dangereuses", and is what you would expect it to be: sly, sardonic, malicious, and delicious.

We're destroying an innocent girl... you realize that?
Do you think I like acting like Mary Sunshine 24-7 so that I can be considered a lady?
Valmont and Merteuil, the terrible twosome

Both Phillipe and Gellar do terrific turns as the film's terrible twosome-- he delivers his double entendre-laced lines with the appropriate inflection and lascivious relish, while she vamps it up effectively, rivaling Glenn Close's turn at the same role in "Dangerous Liaisons". These two attractive actors bring a wonderfully wicked level of sexual tension to their scenes together, and half the fun is waiting to see what these two masters of manipulation will do next. Witherspoon also does remarkably well, bringing the freshness, screen presence, and natural talent that she exhibited in last year's "Pleasantville".

This sure doesn't taste like ice tea.
It's from Long Island.

Unfortunately, the film does suffer from a number of weaknesses. One of the great things about the previous incarnations of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" was the sharp and biting dialogue that flowed effortlessly off the tongue. The dialogue of "Cruel Intentions", while maintaining some of the sophistication of Hampton's play, ends up being sabotaged by a number of cheap and trashy one-liners that detract from the sinister atmosphere of the film. The film's reliance on cheap laughs is also reflected in Blair's character, whose attempts at physical comedy seem out of place.

My father took me on a trip to Australia.
So how are things down under? Blossoming, I hope.

Second, Valmont's transformation is handled clumsily by the script, and his sudden change of heart ends up coming across as forced. Unfortunately, it seems that Kumble tried to take the easy way out with Valmont's emotional arc, hoping to wrap up his character development with some MTV-style montages-- it didn't work. Similarly, the film's resolution does a similar 'quick hit' wrap up that dishes out the moralizing in high doses.

Everybody loves me... and I intend to keep it that way.

"Cruel Intentions" may not be perfect, but it certainly is an indulgence that is difficult to pass up. Staying true to the Machavellian machinations of the original story, this film is a delight to watch and certainly illustrates how Baby Boom Echo cinema on one of its better days. And with some enchanting star turns by its three lead actors, you just might be able to overlook the film's more obvious faults.

My advice is to sleep with as many people as possible.
Wouldn't that make me a slut?
Everybody does it... it's just that nobody talks about it.

Images courtesy of Columbia Pictures. All Rights Reserved.

Go Back to Movie Review Archive Index