Cruel Intentions (1999)

D: Roger Kumble
S: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon

While nominally based upon the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos De Lalcos, it is obvious that scriptwriter/director Roger Kumble has based his contemporary update upon repeated viewings of the Stephen Frears/Christopher Hampton version Dangerous Liaisons. In the role of Valmont, ruthless seducer of women set on degrading and humiliating a beauty renowned for her virtue (Reese Witherspoon of Pleasantville), Ryan Phillippe in particular has been devotedly studying John Malkovich's delicious interpretation of the character in Frears' film. He apes his mannerisms and vocal inflections in detail, and even affects the same posture with uncanny accuracy. It denies him a characterisation of his own, of course, but it works well enough in context. In her role as the equally vicious agent provocateur Merteuil, who has her own agenda in egging Valmont on, TV star Sarah Michelle Gellar is adequate, but lacks a sense of humanity which would give her eventual downfall more bite (her arrogance and brutality is here attributed as much to drugs and alcohol as a meanness of spirit stemming from a lifetime of disappointment). Witherspoon's character has been slightly redefined from its previous incarnations and given a late 1990s spin which works quite well. Her article extolling the virtues of virginity makes a nice red rag to Valmont's bull and gives plenty of topical fire to the familiar ebb and flow of the male-female battle upon which the film is based.

Kumble has been clever in his transposition of the foibles of 18th Century French aristocracy onto the Manhattan socialites of the 1990s, with an awareness of class and the importance of etiquette and hypocrisy which serves him well. Among his conceits is the recasting of the part of the music teacher encouraged to seduce naive young Selma Blair as a black man. The scene where the outraged Christine Baranski as Blair's mother confronts him for affronting her family honour brings home the concern with stratification and prejudice which underlies everything which transpires. This conceit does put Kumble in a difficult position when it comes to the resolution however, as it would not be acceptable in the current political environment to have the music teacher slay Phillippe as the story demands. A reasonable compromise is found (which you will have to see for yourself) which nonetheless makes you wonder quite how deep the social irony of the film actually goes. Another nice touch is the decoration of the apartment shared by half-siblings (!) Valmont and Merteuil (they were former lovers in the novel) with 18th Century style trappings. For the most part though, the film is a fairly direct copy of the Hampton rewrite (with nary a touch of Milos Forman's Valmont), apart from its ending.

As such, it is difficult to fault the story itself, which remains potent and entertaining as it always has. First time visitors to the world of De Lalcos will probably enjoy it all the more then. Its swipes at what we must presume is a recognisable setting may be taken as a dark commentary upon the likes of Beverly Hills 90210 and the teen soaps which have recently filled American television screens. Yet its savagery is skin deep, and the game playing of these bored rich kids lack a sense of urgency and cruelty born out of genuine risk that might deepen them. Valmont seems in precious little danger of losing anything, least of all his battle with Merteuil (who is so clearly foredoomed here that the character loses all of her energy). Witherspoon is convincingly strong as the object of Valmont's attentions, but she lacks the dramatic trajectory to tragedy which might make her story more cautionary. The only genuinely irritating characterisation is from Blair, whose early teen airhead is much too grating for us to have any sympathy for her. It is interesting that Phillippe remarks at one point that email is for geeks and paedophiles, then proceeds to deflower Blair, whose intense stupidity must reflect a character of below legal age or fairly deficient brain power. To be fair, this is the way the part has been written, but it is an annoying one.

Overall Cruel Intentions is relatively watchable and fairly entertaining. It is perhaps too painless for its own good though, all slick one-liners and sleek visuals. It lacks the authentic bite which gives the story its power and there is really no sense of pity or terror which chills the soul when these characters follow their destinies to mutual self-destruction when they deny potential redemption. Its somewhat artificial ending doesn't help matters, but it will leave most casual viewers quite happy and undisturbed (which may be its biggest flaw). It is worth seeing, but more as an interpretation of the classic story than a film in its own right, which is not necessarily an ideal recommendation, nor one that many film makers would wish for.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.