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USA 1999
Directed by
Roger Kumble
97 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
1.5 stars

Cruel Intentions

With Cruel Intentions the unfortunately-named writer-director Roger Kumble was clearly trying to do what Amy Heckerling had done for Jane Austen’s 'Emma' with Clueless (1995) - give his old-world material a modern make-over and make a lot of money in the process. In this case the original text is ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, the 1782 novel by Choderlos De Laclos about the sexual dalliances  of the idle rich in 18th century Paris.

If the idea is ostensibly appealing (and the film was financial success) Kumble does little more than put the original novel in modern dress, pepper the dialogue with crude language and serve it up with plenty of sexual titillation, his master-stroke being a protracted lesbian pash that no doubt accounted for a goodly portion of the ticket sales amongst its intended teen audience.

Ryan Phillippe plays Sebastian Valmont, an über rich kid who lives in a Manhattan mansion with his step-sister Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Whilst she is sadistically manipulative behind a Goody-two-shoes mask he revels in his reputation as an unprincipled seducer. When her current boyfriend dumps her for the innocent Cecile (Selma Blair) she urges Sebastian to seduce Cecile. He agrees but considering this too easy promises to aslo bed Annette (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of the new headmaster at their exclusive prep school and poster girl for premarital virginity. Kathryn ups the ante by telling Sebastian she will give her body to him. If he fails however she gets his vintage roadster.

The original story was stylishly transposed to the big screen in Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and not so successfully by Milos Forman’s Valmont (1989) but Kumble fails to convince with his modernization which really needed a writer-director like Whit Stillman (see in particular his Metropolitan 1990) or someone who could work up credible characters and a plausible setting for their shenanigans. The world of Cruel Intentions is largely fantasy and what was credible in 'Dangerous Liaisons' milieu of jaded (and probably syphilitic)17th century French aristocracy rings hollow amongst a group of privileged Manhattan ‘teens no matter how ridiculously wealthy they are.

The four main players are photogenic (if all too old) with only Witherspoon breaking the mold although Gellar, it has to said, does do mega-bitchy well. The film’s ending which is all Kumble’s work is Hollywood sentimentality at its most heavy-handed and the awkward inclusion of an Afro-American (Sean Patrick Thomas) in the story is obviously an attempt to widen the film's appeal.

FYI: The film was a big enough box office success to generate two sequels the first of which was a straight-to-DVD prequel with a different cast in which Amy Adams played Kathryn. It alone was directed by Kumble.  A merciless flogger of a dead horse, Kumble brought Gellar back as Kathryn in a 2016  telemovie version of the 1999 film. 

If you want to see why Witherspoon was the only one of the cast who grew into a substantial career check out Alexander Payne’s high school comedy, Election, which was released later that year.




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