Coderelos De Laclos’ novel Les Liasons Dangereuses has been adapted several times before, and into better movies than Cruel Intentions. However, this latest adaptation is perhaps the most inventive, and certainly holds its own against the current glut of teen-centric films.
Rich teens are apparently jaded at an early age. Just take a look at the step-siblings, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe). Though still in high school, both are manipulative sexual predators, each taking a different tack. Sebastian wears his roguish cruelty like a badge of honor, taking delight in causing misery to those foolish enough to fall in love with him. Kathryn, on the other hand, while equally devoted to causing misery, hides her schemes behind the veil of being the perfect student at her ultra-rich private academy.
Sebastian has his sights set on his greatest conquest yet: to deflower the new headmaster’s daughter, Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), a teen with morals (gasp!), who has actually proclaimed her celibacy in a feature in Seventeen magazine. Sebastian is so confident that he can bed her that he engages a wager with his sister: if he loses, she gets his classic car…but if he wins, the two siblings get to engage in a session of wild sex.
Kathryn, however, spends her summer seeking revenge. Her ex-boyfriend dumped her for a naive twit, Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair). Kathryn decides to seek her revenge by poisoning the mind of Cecile. It’s an intricate plot involving both Sebastian, and Cecile’s overly-friendly cello teacher, Ronald Clifford (Sean Patrick Thomas).
Though it is never able to surpass its cinematic precursors, Dangerous Liasons and Valmont, Cruel Intentions survives the transition from a romantic costume drama to a teen sex film surprisingly intact. Where else but in the world of teen politics could you find a realm to rival the cruelties of the French aristocracy?
However, the shadow of the earlier films haunts Cruel Intentions mercilessly. Ryan Phillippe, for example, seems to be doing his best to channel John Malkovich for his role. It may be a performance worth emulating, but it hardly wins Phillippe any points for originality. At least Sarah Michelle Gellar doesn’t try to emulate Glenn Close. However, her character is saddled with such over-the-top idiosyncracies, such as a coke spoon hidden in a crucifix, that it is difficult to see her as much more than a comical villain.
Selma Blair seems pathetically out of place as the innocent Cecile, a fact not helped by her incessant overacting. She’s nearly matched by the odd histrionics of Sean Patrick Thomas. However, at least his forced indignation can be mostly attributed to a faltering script.
But, those imperfections aside, Cruel Intentions has a head start on the run-of-the-mill teen sex romp: a good story. There’s actually a plot at work here! Sure, at times the complex machinations seem to be far above the capacities of the teens in the cast, but, if you’re willing to give it a chance, there’s a good bet you’ll be entertained.
The film stumbles a bit at its conclusion, modified (only a slight bit) from the book, but in a way that seems jarringly false. Still, you could certainly do worse than Cruel Intentions, which, though clumsy at times, at least is not brain-suckingly vapid. However, after watching Cruel Intentions, rent Dangerous Liasons, to see how the story should really be done.