For Cruel Intentions, writer Roger Kumble's directorial debut, he has come up with the clever idea of updating Choderlos De Laclos's durable eighteenth-century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses. With its focus on totally amoral protagonists who use sex as a tool to manipulate innocents, often just for the hell of it, the book caused a scandal when it was first published.
Its subject matter made it obviously off-limits during the Golden Age of Hollywood, but filmmakers have been playing catchup during the past few decades. French director Roger Vadim made the first film adaptation in 1959 (it was inexplicably released in the United States in 1962 as Dangerous Liaisons 1960); and the late Eighties saw the release of two competing films: Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Milos Forman's Valmont (1989). One might have thought the coincidence of these dueling Liaisons would have saturated the market for the foreseeable future, but Kumble's change of setting is so significant that the new version is justifiable. (Actually the notion of updating the story isn't precisely original: Vadim's film took place among contemporary jet setters.)
Although the sheer viciousness and amorality of the characters are still outrageous, the sexual content has lost much of its shock value. But Kumble has found a way to make that aspect scandalous again: He has had the temerity to make the main characters high school kids. In a marketplace dominated by teen viewers, it's a commercial inspiration. In aesthetic terms it's just plain wacky -- crossbreeding one of the wittiest, nastiest novels ever written with the gum-snapping world of She's All That and Varsity Blues. It's like Bugsy Malone ... but with sex and wickedness!
Madame de Merteuil and Valmont are reincarnated here as Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont, two upper-class Manhattan stepsiblings who never seem to be more than an inch away from step-incest. They are portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar (Buffy herself!) and Ryan Phillippe, two actors who also worked together in the dreary I Know What You Did Last Summer. (Curiously in Vadim's version, Valmont was played by French heartthrob Gerard Philipe, who, given the spelling, presumably is not a relation.)
Kathryn's most recent beau, Court Reynolds (Charlie O'Connell), has dumped her for innocent, dumb-as-a-post Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair, who, distractingly, sometimes looks like a scrawny version of Monica Lewinsky). For revenge Kathryn asks Sebastian to help her corrupt Cecile while Court is away for the summer, so Court will end up with secondhand goods. Even at this early juncture, we encounter the inevitable problems in changing the social milieu: Do most high school boys really put a premium on their girlfriends' virginity these days? Am I giving them too much credit by assuming that hymenal integrity has lost its once nearly holy value? Have fin de millennium values regressed 40 years?
Meanwhile Kathryn and Sebastian make a bet over whether he can seduce the inordinately virtuous Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), who has written an article for Seventeen on why she, for one, is saving herself for matrimony and true love. If he fails Kathryn gets his prize 1956 Jaguar; if he succeeds, she'll sleep with him. "I'll fuck your brains out," she coos. "You can put it anywhere." (Later she reinforces his flagging determination by giving him half a handjob, which is presumably one of the main reasons this youth-targeted film has an R rating.)
On first hearing of the project, one might have naturally assumed that Witherspoon was cast as Kathryn and Gellar as Annette. After her terrific performance in Freeway, Witherspoon could easily have been limited forever to bad-girl roles. But in fact she's mostly convincing, though even her best efforts cannot make Annette's falling for Sebastian entirely believable; the script does not help her out here. As the story plows toward its finale, the cultural dislocation problems become worse, until by the end they almost defeat the entire film. What is the Nineties high school equivalent of a duel to the death? Kumble's solution is contrived and dopey. And the final scenes of Kathryn's comeuppance make absolutely no practical sense. There are a few other little slips throughout. The opening sequence takes place in a psychiatrist's office -- with glass walls -- in what appears to be a mall. Maybe such a shrink exists, but who would go see her? It's not a particularly believable note on which to kick off the film.
Still, Kumble comes up with some genuine witty new dialogue, in addition to the lines that are taken directly from the original. And he does give the material some extra kick from the sheer perversity of having sweet-faced Gellar behave so wretchedly.
Written and directed by Roger Kumble. Suggested by the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos De Laclos. With Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Selma Blair.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.