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In 1999, movie audiences were presented with this shrill twist on Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons from writer-director Roger Kumble, which inelegantly laboured the cynicism of the original with a smirking 20th-century update. Jaded epicures Vicomte de Valmont and Marquise de Merteuil are reimagined as spoilt Manhattan rich kids Sebastian and Kathryn, step-siblings who have the creepily competitive quasi-incestuous hots for each other’s firm young bodies.
They are played by Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar. (Amy Adams took over the Kathryn role for a straight-to-DVD prequel in 2000; there was even a generic threequel in 2004, featuring Kathryn’s supposed cousin and in 2016 Kumble brought Gellar back as Kathryn, in a TV movie, playing a now middle-aged schemer.)
Here, Kathryn challenges the notorious seducer Sebastian to apply his sulphurous charms to the super-virginal Annette (Reese Witherspoon), and, if he succeeds, Kathryn agrees to submit personally to his long-simmering and decadent desires: “You can put it anywhere!” Things go wrong when, to his own astonishment, Sebastian falls in love in Annette. Now this movie is getting a rerelease here for its 21st birthday (or its 20th when it came out in the US last year).
Well, 1999 was a banner year for Hollywood pictures in many ways, but this really wasn’t one of the greats. Looking back, I see I found it laboured, and to me it doesn’t look much better now.
Witherspoon, who created a masterpiece with her fierce performance in Alexander Payne’s Election that same year, is bland. So is Gellar – who often seems to have raided the grownups’ dressing up box. Phillippe does at least look and sound the part, zooming around in his gorgeous roadster. (No nonsense about seatbelts.) But his transformation into someone genuinely exalted by love is unconvincing, and the film’s satirical forays into the realms of gay sexuality and racism jar a bit. (Christine Baranski does admittedly have a good line when her character is outraged to be accused of bigotry: “My husband and I gave money to Colin Powell!”)
There is some perspective to be gained now on this 90s period piece, with its Joe Eszterhas-type title, people still talking on payphones and Sebastian airily announcing: “Email is for geeks and paedophiles!” But the step-sibling idea looks very much as if it has been borrowed from Amy Heckerling’s 1996 movie Clueless (the two films have the same gag about gay people watching Spartacus on TV) but Clueless was a literary update that worked better with a lighter and more humorous touch.
Phillippe plays a very 90s Bret Easton Ellis-type character, and he might have been interesting casting as Patrick Bateman in the film version of American Psycho, a role that went to Christian Bale. Times change, and this is of course very much a pre-BLM, pre-#MeToo piece. It might have dated less if wasn’t quite so pleased with itself.
• Cruel Intentions is available on Amazon Prime Video.
Source: The Guardian
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