With the preponderance of period pieces at the movies during recent years, it doesn’t seem too farfetched that someone would adapt Balzac’s novel Cousin Bette. However, this farcical tale of revenge falters right out of the starting gate and never recovers.
Jessica Lange stars as Cousin Bette. As a child, her cousin Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin) was favored and pampered by her family. Adeline even stole Bette’s true love, Baron Hector Hulot (Hugh Laurie). But Bette just swallowed her pride and let it fester inside her.
The movie opens with Adeline on her deathbed. Bette promises to look after Adeline’s children (but not the way Adeline intends). However, once she is unintentionally scorned once again by Hector, she begins to plot the Hulot downfall.
She enlists the help of a young sculptor, Wenceslas (Aden Young), and a burlesque star, Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue) to further her plans. But her evil is all consuming, and even her allies are in danger of becoming victims of her schemes.
Intended as a farce, Cousin Bette never quite works. Though quite frequently ridiculous, the film doesn’t commit itself wholeheartedly to the concept.
Lange is easily the best thing in the movie, though her character is rather slow to develop. In the opening scenes, we get the sense that she is already plotting her evil revenge, but then she has a sudden relapse into niceness. It’s not until much later that her true character has a chance to come out. Whether it is a conscious ploy for audience sympathy or not, it gives an inconsistent tone to her character.
Elisabeth Shue peppers the film with several truly horrid musical numbers. They’re intentionally bad, and here’s one area where the filmmakers succeed grandly. They’re so bad that they are actually painful to watch.
If not for Lange’s performance, the film would be a complete loss…and it almost is anyhow. Those seeking seduction and betrayal in period dress should probably rewatch Dangerous Liasons, and ignore Cousin Bette.