Rating: R (strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, language, and drug use)
Length: 97 minutes
Release Date: Mar. 5, 1999
Directed by: Roger Kumble
Stars: 3 out of 5
Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) is not an average teenager in any way. He is rich thanks to his moneyed parents and attends an upper-crust school with his stepsister Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who is also not an average teenager. Both of them are jaded by the insular Manhattan social circle they rule, so they are always looking for new kinds of stimulation. They are both heartless, so conquering and dominating people for sport and fun is something they both enjoy doing.
Kathryn is class president, so when a young transfer student named Cecile (Selma Blair) transfers to her school, she has to take a meeting with Cecile and her mother Bunny (Christine Baranski). She learns that Cecile’s new boyfriend is Court Reynolds (Charlie O’Connell), who broke up with Kathryn in order to begin dating Cecile over the summer. Livid, Kathryn enlists Sebastian to seduce Cecile in order to shame Court, but he has his sights on a much bigger conquest in the virginal Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon). It just so happens that Annette is staying with Sebastian’s aunt while her father, the new headmaster of Sebastian and Kathryn’s posh school, finds new digs for them. The siblings decide to make a bet about Sebastian’s chances of bedding Annette, which ups the ante and puts the plot into motion.
Sebastian begins paying regular visits to his aunt’s estate in order to try and seduce Annette, but she is having none of it because she has been warned about Sebastian’s conquests. When he finds out that Bunny was the one who warned Annette about him, he decides to seduce Cecile after all, setting up a showdown with her cello teacher Ronald (Sean Patrick Thomas), who has a crush on her. After sleeping with Cecile, Sebastian goes back to try and seduce Annette again, but something has changed. He begins to soften and realizes that he is falling for her, which has never happened to him before. A jealous Kathryn gets wind of his feelings and devises a plan to hurt Sebastian and Annette. It’s a devious plan that quickly cascades out of control, including the tragic death of one of the characters.
The film is based on the classic novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos, a tome that has been adapted for the screen before in 1988’s much-awarded “Dangerous Liaisons.” Screenwriter and director Roger Kumble stays faithful to the basic plot structure of the book, but he changes the setting to modern-day Manhattan in an attempt to draw in a younger crowd that would probably shy away from a film like “Dangerous Liaisons.” He also turns all the characters into teenagers, which makes their despicable actions all the more unsettling. There is a certain amount of stomach turning that occurs when the audience sees such young people behaving so badly, but it really helps drive the tragedy of de Laclos’ novel home. It’s a film full of attractive people doing ugly things, with a few small moments of levity thrown in to break up the high drama, mostly at the expense of poor, innocent Cecile.
Cinematography is a part of many films that often gets overlooked by viewers, but that probably won’t be the case with “Cruel Intentions.” The clothes and the set decoration are all impeccable, and cinematographer Theo van de Sande captures all of it beautifully. The gorgeousness of the set is in stark contrast to the darkness of the actual plot, which is part of what makes the film work. The warm gold and turquoise hues of Kathryn’s room don’t match the coldness of her icy heart, if she even has one. The car that Sebastian drives is classy, whereas he is the furthest thing from classy, at least at the start of the film. Audience members will probably have fun trying to find all these contrasts, which are fairly easy to pick up on.
Music also plays a huge role in the film, with a slew of modern rock bands providing the soundtrack. It is reminiscent of director Baz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” which also had a soundtrack that was important to the overall feel of the film. In particular, the climax of the film is set to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve, which is very effective because of the song. The music and youthful cast are big differences from “Dangerous Liaisons,” but it isn’t really fair to compare the two films. “Cruel Intentions” may not have won the awards that its predecessor did, but it introduced a whole new generation to De Laclos’ classic tale, which is worth a lot of merit all on its own.