Cyberlizard goes to the movies

Cruel Intentions

Starring Ryan Philippe, Sara Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair

The play Les Liaisons Dangereuses has been popular on both stage and screen for some years now. Most memorably we had the 80s version with Michelle Pfeiffer and John Malkovich: now it's time to give it the teenage angst treatment in Cruel Intentions.

The film

If you've seen any version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses then you'll have some idea of what to expect, even if the story has been transposed to upper-class 1990s Manhattan. Sebastian (Ryan Philippe) is the manipulative, sex-obsessed stepbrother to the equally manipulative and scheming Kathryn (Sara Michelle Gellar) by the marriage of their respective father and mother. Kathryn has a grudge against Court Reynolds, a boy who spurned her the previous summer and wants to get at him by ruining the reputation of his new infatuation, Cecilia (Selma Blair), who as a freshman (freshwoman?) has been entrusted to her care by her mother who accepts Kathryn's outwardly respectable public persona. Kathryn needs Sebastian's help in deflowering Cecilia, but Sebastian is now enthused with a greater "challenge": Annette (Reese Witherspoon), the daughter of the new headmaster. The challenge is made the greater because Annette has publicly declared her intention in a magazine of remaining a virgin until she marries. Thus a tragedy is set into motion.

The modernising treatment certainly puts some new angles on the story. The film starts off by panning across a huge graveyard which gradually is swallowed up in the landscape of contemporary New York, while the ending where Kathryn falls totally from grace, played out against the backtrack of the Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" is superb, even more devastating than the disgrace of Glenn Close in the 80s film. Yet at other times it stumbles. For example, while it was clear in Dangerous Liaisons that John Malkovich and Glenn Close were from the wealthy and somewhat idle upper classes of French society, we had enough distance in time and space from them not to feel a personal grudge against them for that reason. Here the prodigious wealth of Sebastian and Kathryn seems an affront because of their behaviour, and you can't help feeling that if they'd been less pampered they'd be less obnoxious. Castwise too the film is a bit uneven. My initial impression of Sebastian was of such an obnoxious and frankly unattractive youth that he would be lucky to get the attention of a pre-pubescent niece, let alone run up a reputation as a heartless stallion. Kathryn plays well but looks as if she might have taken lessons from Alexis in the old soap boiler Dynasty. Reese Witherspoon is actually the best of the three in my opinion and will probably go on to better things, but even she seems a bit inconsistent: one minute she's a self-assured Christian (implied) and determined to remain celibate, then suddenly she's all over Sebastian and pulling him down on to the bed. It's not a criticism of their acting, but possibly of the script: either way, it makes for a few glitches in credibility.

Does it work? I came out of the cinema feeling in two minds about the film. The problem is that we are dealing with a fairly adult theme but transposing it into the mouths of the young, so to speak. Thus it's hard to get the message across without the characters sounding either unnaturally adult or full of adolescent melodrama. At times in fact it seems to descend into pure melodrama in teenage Neighbours style, with shouting and tantrums: possibly believable to an adolescent audience, but somewhat bemusing and distant from this 30-something reviewer.

This brings me to my main problem with Cruel Intentions. Presumably it is aimed at a teenage audience, yet frankly the raw sex portrayed in it far exceeds anything in the adult Dangerous Liaisons. Thus we see a secretly bisexual footballer (Joshua Jackson, quite good) being set up in bed with another boy, scenes fairly explicitly implying oral sex and one of the protagonists being aroused to orgasm while fully dressed. The language gets fairly raunchy too, with expletives abounding. If it is supposed to be a morality tale aimed at the younger audience, then I'm not sure that that will be the part they remember. While it's clear that the downfall of Sebastian and Kathryn is due to their cruel manipulation of others, the message about promiscuity may be less clear. I also have a gut feeling that much of the film was too explicit for a 15 rating, even in these times: the Pfeiffer-Malkovich version carried as much weight and power with half the "in your face" sex action of this one. If the producers were really sincere about making a teenage morality play, some scenes should have been trimmed.

Good points? Cecilia was quite good, although I wasn't sure whether we were supposed to be laughing at her. Full marks nevertheless to Selma Blair, as I found out that she was in fact 26 when the film was made - quite convincing, then, as a young teenager! And the soundtrack will please a lot of people: certainly I thought a couple of the tracks were pretty good. Overall, then, a brave attempt but uneven and sometimes not engaging.

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