1999 brought a full barge of teen movies, most of them corny, shallow duds (“She’s All That” anyone?). But amongst all that were a few gems like “Election”, “Rushmore”, and to a lesser extent, “Cruel Intentions”. The film boasts fresh young faces and a hip soundtrack, but it actually has something to say about life and human nature; it’s not just about who you’re gonna bring to the prom. It’s probably because it’s a contemporary adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’ 1762 novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”, a classic tale of sordid mind games in 18th century Paris aristocracy. Writer-director Roger Kumble took the book’s multi-layered characters and complex plot and transposed them in a respected 90s Manhattan prep school.
The story takes place in the weeks before the return to class and mostly revolves around Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) and the daughter of his father’s new wife, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar). Young, rich and beautiful, they also share a taste for cruelly manipulating others, using charm, lies and deception to make them miserable. Kathryn acts like a Marcia Brady in public to maintain her reputation as the student body president, but under this respectable facade lurks a mean spirited, coke snorting vamp deprived of a conscience. Sebastian is a tad less hypocrite; he also takes advantage of the people around him, screwing innocent girls just for the thrill of conquest, but at least he’s kinda open about it.
As the film begins, our half-siblings make a bet about whether Sebastian can woo Annette (Reese Witherspoon), a wholesome Kansas girl who wrote a manifesto in Seventeen promoting virginity. Meanwhile, Kathryn schemes to pervert naive Cecile (Selma Blair) by throwing her into the arms of her Black music teacher (Sean Patrick Thomas). But for once, the bitch and the bastard might see their plans backfiring…
“Cruel Intentions” is a highly enjoyable movie which balances interestingly the source material’s sophisticated behavior study with trashy 90s antics. You gotta like the constant sexual innuendo, but the movie’s much less exploitative than it could have been. Yeah, there’s a lesbian kiss, cunnilingus, gay sex and plenty of sexy babes, but there’s barely any nudity. The film’s purpose ain’t as much to titillate than it is about exploring relationships and sexuality. We see how easily people can be blinded by their feelings and get hurt.
Kumble doesn’t dumb down the themes of the novel too much, he just gives them a refreshing, flashy feel “Dawson’s Creek”-style. The film looks and sounds like a spot on MTV, but not to the point of being vaporous. Kumble’s dynamic style still leaves place for reflection, and at least the ubiquitous pop soundtrack features good tunes by Placebo, The Verve, Counting Crows and Fatboy Slim. I also really dig the cast. The young performers are not only charismatic but also pretty convincing in their roles. It’s neat how at first we loathe Ryan Phillippe and find Sarah Michelle Gellar delightfully bitchy, but as Phillippe’s Valmont falls in love with his victim and gets confused, he grows more likable and it’s Gellar’s Kathryn who becomes despicable. I bought Phillippe’s change of heart and even started to root for the guy, which made the climax even more bittersweet.