April 10, 2016
Cruel Intentions is a marvelously devious teen film. Why, then, must it undermine what it has going for it during its last act, where malevolence turns into predictable, gooey trite, and where snappy sardonicism becomes sluggish and frustratingly moralizing? This is a movie that rides high on the fumes of manipulation, sex, and luring self-regard, and yet it closes itself off with an ending better suited for a teenage comedy. Villains, more or less, are the central characters of Cruel Intentions, and I’d be lying if I said a part of me didn’t want to see them be victims of petty revenge. But must it be done so artificially?
I can’t let the failure of its finale get the best of me, because most of the film works. A modernized rendition of classic French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), Cruel Intentions takes the sinful escapades of its source and successfully makes its erotic hoodwinks undeniably entertaining. We’ve seen its story many times before, brought to the screen five or so times with similar air. Unfamiliar with the most widely celebrated adaptation, the 1988 version, I’m perhaps the best sort of viewer for Cruel Intentions, aware of the expectations of the plot but not so familiar with them that it inhibits my enjoyment.
The adult, aristocratic characters of novel are traded in the film for an attractive teenage (played by twenty-somethings) ensemble well-suited for this kind of material (with the exception of Selma Blair, who takes coy to levels better fit for a child actress trying to make the transition into adult roles). It stars Ryan Phillippe as Sebastian Valmont, a poor little rich boy whose good looks and sly flirtations have made him an infamous womanizer. He savors his ability to seduce nearly any woman he wants, consequence slim because of his high familial status and because of the way he looks like an Abercrombie & Fitch model on a day off.
But his sexual conquests are only distractions from the girl he really wants. She is Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), his provocative stepsister. Their respective parents have married only recently, and an animal attraction has existed ever since. But Kathryn is a twisted scoundrel of a woman, and, like Sebastian, uses the opposite sex like a dog chews up rawhide. Unlike Sebastian, Kathryn doesn’t seem to enjoy sex — she wallows in the process of temptation, but isn’t so much enamored when the point of her being irresistible comes to a close. So while she likes Sebastian, and while Sebastian clearly likes her, she holds him off. Until a nefarious scheme pops up in his mind.
He is planning to seduce Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), a girl next door of a blond who has achieved mini-fame from Seventeen magazine for an article in which she expressed her desire to remain a virgin until marriage. Since she’s the daughter of Sebastian and Kathryn’s new school headmaster, she’ll be arriving shortly, Sebastian determined to put an end to her virtue almost as soon as she sets foot in the city.
Kathryn, intrigued, makes a deal with her stepbrother. If he fails to entice Annette into a one-night-stand, she gets his enviable sports car. If he succeeds, he can have her all to himself for a night. Sebastian, wanting Kathryn more than anyone, takes the offer. Little does he know, however, that Annette is not the kind of girl you just seduce and destroy; she’s the kind of girl you love and cherish, feelings he thought were only found in optimistic tall tales.
Cruel Intentions is a classic instance of a film that begins with premier promise but invariably descends into bittersweet melodrama that doesn’t suit it. For its first forty-five minutes, it is a terrific piece of soap opera, scenes written with pertinacious snap, the acting overblown in a good way. The evils of Sebastian and Kathryn are devilishly pleasurable to experience; we like watching them plot to destroy the lives of others, and writer/director Roger Kumble brings the sinuous zest of his source to life with modern freshness. To transform Choderlos de Laclos’s words into a teen movie is no easy feat, but Kumble does the impossible and makes a film depicting adolescent sex and malice with believability. For the most part.
Cruel Intentions is a lot of fun until it isn’t anymore, until its theatrics begin to lose their acidity in trade of unwanted sentimentalism. I despise the subplot involving Kathryn’s ruining of Cecile (Blair), a virgin who stole a potential love interest, not necessarily because it isn’t well-written but because Blair’s performance so thoroughly destroys the careful camp Kumble so deliciously writes. Also despicable are the film’s depiction of gay characters (one is seen throwing his Judy Garland CDs in the trash after a breakup — it's meant to be a joke), and its use of a black man as a token temptation rather than an actual person.
But one can’t expect a film of Cruel Intentions’s tawdriness to be completely agreeable in its every move, and I suppose it is to be predicted that an elite piece of Hollywood popcorn might have a problem with authenticity. But there’s also a lot to revel in in the film, from Gellar’s fantastic performance (and her chemistry with Phillippe) to Kumble’s savagely smart treatment of it all. If its final act weren’t such an uneven mess, I might call it a guilty pleasure. But guilty pleasures should bring no pain, and the conclusion to this film does. It comes close to adequate soap opera, but not quite. C+