Cruel Intentions, 1999.
Directed by Roger Kumble.
Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Joshua Jackson, Sean Patrick Thomas, Christine Baranski, Louise Fletcher, Eric Mabius, and Swoosie Kurtz.
An adaptation of the novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, Cruel Intentions tells the story of lies, sex, and exploitation as it follows Sebastian’s and Kathryn’s making a very dangerous & raunchy wager.
Diving back into Cruel Intentions – twenty years after the initial release – is quite fascinating. Not only because of the much-missed ’90s melodrama but somehow the shock & awe feel much different now. In the middle of the Me Too movement, a film about exploiting people around you for your enjoyment comes off equally familiar as it does stomach-churning. But the voyeuristic look of the corrupt step-siblings and their downfall almost makes it worth it for the viewer. You want to take your eyes off the madness of the Kathryn and Sebastian sex wager, but all you can do is wait for it to come crashing down.
Director Roger Kumble teeters the thin line of good and bad taste throughout the entire film’s run. But as iconic shock artist John Waters once said: “To understand bad taste, one must have very good taste.” And it feels like Kumble has excellent taste as he knows how to make things feel so sleazy.
What makes this film so special is how wonderfully it adapts and modernizes the French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses. Look, no one is claiming that this film is anything like the Oscar-nominated Dangerous Liaisons, a movie of the same source material released about a decade prior. The intentions of the filmmakers are indeed different, as the 1988 period piece is a bit more of a serious adaptation. Even though Keanu Reeves set in a film during the pre-French Revolution is as campy as anything you’d see in Cruel Intentions. But the 1999 film knows its exact tone and style without compromising the core elements of what makes the original novel so scandalous.
Sarah Michelle Gellar was a star long before taking on the role of Kathryn Merteuil, but her turn in Cruel Intentions is a career highlight. While Sarah Michelle Gellar was known for her assured, but bubbly Buffy Summers character, the role of Kathryn takes the confidence to another level while ditching the cuteness for pure sex appeal. Every scene Gellar is in, every line from her mouth, it’s pure gold. Take the Kathryn Merteuil rant about suppressing her sexuality to fit into society; it’s somehow hilariously campy and too damn real. Moments like that are the little extra touch that makes this cult classic beloved.
Not to take away from the cast of strong men in the film, but this viewing of Cruel Intentions shows how important the women are to this story. Joshua Jackson and Ryan Phillippe both hold their own, but when you look at the steady work from the earlier mention Gellar, the hilarious Selma Blair, and the sharp turn from Reese Witherspoon, it’s genuinely the women’s piece.
A perfect example of the focus on heightening women is the ending of this film compared to 1988’s Dangerous Liaisons. In both, Kathryn is facing the consequences for her actions, but Cecille’s story ends on a brighter note in this. Typically her character is guilt-ridden for getting justice and later becomes a nun. Not in Cruel Intentions though, Witherspoon’s Cecille gets her revenge and the car at the end of the wager. Happy and feeling free; it’s fantastic to see this character own what she did and feel pride in becoming this now powerful women.
Cruel Intentions is the type of film where you don’t believe people like this exist. You often feel dumbfounded as everyone falls prey to the mind games of the lead characters. Sadly, if you look at the news, you can see people like Kathryn and Sebastian every day. I do question if this film would shock audiences like it once did. If they were to remake it now, are raunchy wagers and sexual manipulation still taboo to today’s viewers? Or would the story focus even more on the heroes of the story? For some, seeing disgusting characters get what’s coming to them might feel a bit empowering.
A film like this used to be escapism for viewers, where you go to see bad people do even worse things. Now that’s normal and can be found on any network or multiplex. But remove all the exploitation elements, and Cruel Intentions still holds up. With a sharp script and even sharper acting, it’s a pleasure to watch this sexy game of chess unfold.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★