WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Wealthy step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian spice up their teasing relationship with a wager: if Sebastian can deflower the headmaster’s chaste daughter Annette before the new term of prep school, Kathryn will put out; if not, he loses his precious car. Meanwhile, Kathryn also wants Sebastian to sully her exes’ new girlfriend Cecile; but they’re both playing a dangerous game, and neither of them bargain for love entering the equation.
You’re young, you’re rich, you’re pretty: but school’s out, so what to do? If you’re step-brother and sister Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Philippe), you spend your time corrupting the innocent and tantalising each other with promises of illicit sex. When Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon) – headmaster’s daughter and avowed abstainer – comes onto the scene, handily staying at Sebastian‘s aunt‘s house, Kathryn issues Sebastian with a challenge: bed her before the start of term and he can also have his wicked way with her; otherwise, he will have to hand over his exotic Jaguar Roadster.
Kathryn has also been charged with looking after gawky Cecile (Selma Blair) and has reasons to ruin her life too, so she tasks Sebastian with leading Cecile on a journey of sexual discovery, whilst Kathryn ‘mentors’ Cecile’s music teacher and would-be paramour Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas). Wary of Sebastian’s reputation, Annette initially resists his advances, but as the couple get to know each other, he finds his feelings helplessly shifting from the satisfaction of wielding power to the troubling sensation of genuine love. But Kathryn isn’t to be shunted aside so easily, and uses anything – and anyone – to make sure Sebastian remains her plaything.
On paper, the idea of Cruel Intentions sounds pretty awful: Hollywood ransacks another literary classic – not Shakespeare, for once, but Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereuses – and peoples it with spoilt kids, adding a sordid quasi-incestuous plotline for no good reason other than to up the sleaze quotient. But, miracle of miracles, it works. Firstly, because of the source material: Laclos’ original novel is full of twists and turns, full of intrigue and blackmail, and is so nasty, so ruthless in exploring the self-destructive nature of self-love and jealousy, that it would be difficult to screw it up. And this is the second reason the film works: screenwriter/director Roger Kumble keeps the story pretty much intact, with a script that doesn’t mince its words, making Kathryn on one hand a deeply disturbed sociopath, on the other a passionate proponent for equal rights: if Sebastian sleeping around only enhances his reputation, why is she a slut if she does the same? Even their icky relationship, diluted as it is by the lack of blood ties, becomes enticing, and Kathryn’s ultimate cruelty is both satisfying and devastating – and doesn’t go unpunished. Kumble even makes a decent joke to justify the amount of letter-writing (so passé!) in a movie firmly based in the internet age.
The quality of the actors is the third, and main, reason Cruel Intentions works. Even though the leads are clearly a bit old for school (thankfully, the institution itself is largely absent, so the film doesn’t feel like a High School movie), they are a cut above the cast of (for example) American Pie and handle the drama extremely well. Philippe is rather better at playing cruel and cool than sincere and dear, but he’s effectively nasty and certainly shares decent chemistry with (sadly) his future ex-wife, Reese Witherspoon; she is beautifully sweet as Annette, completely convincing as the virginal daughter struggling to contain her feelings and – in complete contrast to Kathryn – sexy without being aggressively sexual.
Sarah Michelle Gellar is suitably domineering and vampish as Kathryn, and though I’m not particularly a fan (Kristy Swanson is the one true Buffy as far as I’m concerned), hers is a sizzling performance, highlighted in her notorious kiss with Selma Blair. I’m surprised to read that some find Blair’s performance annoying; although her mannerisms are exaggerated, I found her comic expressions and pratfalls a refreshing relief from the moodiness exhibited by those around her. Her reaction to Philippe’s first kiss is brilliant, but then again it’s a hell of a first kiss.
Cruel Intentions is much more fun than you could expect a film about entitled, self-seeking youngsters to be, but it’s not an unqualified success. The second half – where Sebastian suffers his crisis of conscience and Philippe has to act ruffled – is less entertaining than the first, and as the film comes to its denouement the modern setting starts to fit less and less well. Kathryn’s comeuppance is strangely represented (silent glares and shaking heads), and the instrument of revenge – Sebastian’s journal – is a joke, a scrapbook of childish scrawls with supposedly damning words written alongside photographs (‘PROMISCUOUS!’, ‘DECEITFUL!’). It’s not just the fact that it looks like the work of a twelve-year old, it’s completely at odds with its appearance (smart leather binding) and that of its owner. Surely someone as image-conscious as Sebastian would have put together something more professional-looking, especially if he intended it to be an insurance policy? I wasn’t keen either on the pop songs chosen to emphasise the mood at various points of the film, but that was largely on the basis that they were unfamiliar.
Taking its lead from wilfully sleazy movies such as Wild Things, Cruel Intentions takes Laclos’ scandalous tale and serves it up juicily for a new generation of young filmgoers. To be honest, I’d still watch Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons, given a free hand; but at least this film concentrates on the story, rather than on the sex: like the Poison Ivy series, Cruel Intentions 2 and 3 proved to be less interested in furthering the tale than in re-telling it with lesser-known actors and cheap titillation.