Thursday 12 March 2015

Movie Review: Cruel Intentions (1999)

A loose adaptation and modernization of  Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, Cruel Intentions enjoys a quite dazzling first half, but subsequently fades away into an overwrought mess.

In New York, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Geller) and her step brother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) are very rich teenagers, unsupervised by their parents, and carrying a mean streak of cruelty to others. Sebastian enjoys collecting sexual conquests, and after humiliating his psychologist (Swoosie Kurtz) by seducing her daughter (Tara Reid), he sets his sights on Annette (Reese Witherspoon), the virginal daughter of his new schoolmaster. Kathryn, who pretends to be an exemplary young woman and a mentor to others, contrives a revenge on a former boyfriend that involves humiliating his new girlfriend Cecile (Selma Blair).

Kathryn does not believe that Sebastian can seduce Annette, and the step-siblings make a bet: she will sleep with him if he succeeds, and he will give her his prized car if he fails. Sebastian does get close to Annette, but his plan is knocked off-course when he starts to develop genuine affection for her. Meanwhile, Katherine finds it easier to control the naive Cecile, who embarks on a wild journey of sexual discovery much to the horror of her mother Bunny (Christine Baranski).

Directed and written by Roger Kumble, the opening 45 minutes of Cruel Intentions is a guilty pleasure masterpiece. The screen positively crackles with an edgy depraved cruelty, driven by the psychotic Katheryn and sexually insatiable Sebastian. As they gleefully plot to destroy the lives of others with barely a hint of remorse, Kumble demonstrates what it means for the devil to make work for idle hands. Katherine and Sebastian live to satisfy their uncontrolled urges at the expense of unsuspecting victims, and absolutely love doing so.

The second half of the film is not nearly as good. Once Sebastian gets in touch with his emotions and discovers that he can actually care about the feelings of another human being, the superficial talent at the core of the movie is exposed, the edge is rubbed off and momentum is lost. Ryan Phillippe cannot carry the role of conflicted lover, and the competitive dynamic between Kathryn and Sebastian is thrown out of balance. She is still on the path of cruelty while he wants out, and the disparity punches a hole in the narrative structure.

Geller and Blair emerge with the two best performances. Geller thrives as the dark protagonist, revelling in the euphoria of manipulation. Blair allows Cecile to bounce along the path laid for her by others, her mix of determined stupidity creating the perfect target for Kathryn's contemptuous darts. Witherspoon is steady, but the role of Annette does not offer much latitude for inventiveness. The supporting cast also includes Louise Fletcher and Sean Patrick Thomas.

Cruel Intentions is half of a very good movie, a case of mistimed moral awakening ruining a wicked romp.

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