Cruel Intentions
Rating -

Drama (US); 1999; Rated R; 90 Minutes

Sarah Michele Gellar: Kathryn Merteul-Valmont
Ryan Phillipe: Sebastian Valmont
Reese Witherspoon: Annette Hargrove
Selma Blair: Cecile Caldwell
Joshua Jackson: Blaine Tuttle

Produced by Chris J. Ball, Michael Fottrel, Bruce Mellon, Neal H. Morritz, William Tyer and Heather Zeegen; Directed and screenwritten by Roger Kumble; suggested by "Les Liasons Dangereuses" by Choderlos de Laclos

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Written by DAVID KEYES

"If you want to truly understand something, try to change it."

-Kurt Lewis

Roger Kumble feels the same way as Kurt Lewis, and that's apparent in his "suggested" adaptation of "Les Liasons Dangereuses," a story which, though popular with most literature buffs, is arguably one of the most difficult literary works to tackle. And what's difficult for literature is also difficult for the movies, because when people try to 'faithfully adapt' such stories, the plot often gets suffocated behind costumes and sets. In the late 1980s, filmmakers made "Dangerous Liasons," a forgettable and downright dull 'adaptation' of the famous piece of literature we speak of. The recreation of the classic starred, among others, John Malkovich, Glenn Close, Michele Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman, as high-class civilians who were dragged into a complex web of seduction and betrayal. The story's movement from one act to the next took away the passion that the literature had, and crumbled under the mass of its dead characterization. Some call the film "a contemporary classic," or even a "masterpiece," but the film is clear evidence that faithful adaptations can be more like faithful rip-offs.

Ah, but with "Cruel Intentions," the filmmakers prove that, if lightning should strike in the same place twice, each strike has to have a different force of impact. This is a movie that is merely 'suggested' by the "Dangerous Liasons" material because, in truth, it's a modernization of the story, using the same basic themes but with different style and movement. In other words, it uses the music, but not the lyrics.

Indeed, if you don't understand something like the Laclos story, the best way to truly grasp it is to change it. Depending on how the modernization strays from the actual context, the change can be either great or hideous. Take the 'modernization' of "Romeo & Juliet," for example, which is one of the worst films of the decade. There, the characters fell in love and had the same urges as in Shakespeare's play, but it over-exercised the use of Shakespeare's language, until the whole concept lost its edge and became more stale than the average rice cake. "Cruel Intentions" falls more on the great side, although one can't help but admit, there's a few stumbles along the way.

The film stars Sarah Michele Gellar, as a high-class snob (AKA modern teenager) whose loss of a boyfriend to the vixen Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair) prompts her to seek a sexual revenge, so to speak. She confides in her stepbrother Sebastian (Ryan Phillipe) that, in order to turn Cecile into the slut that they think she is, he has to seduce her. In addition to that, she strikes a deal with him, claiming that, if he can also seduce the "pure" Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), he and she can take their obsession with each other to the physical side. Sex is merely a form of manipulation to these people, and they use it any way they can.

The whole story is a sexual escape for the characters, and it's more or less a reality escape for us, the viewers, because we know that, if people are really like this, they have to come from stories, because real-life sexual situations don't get this complicated or ridiculous. Ryan Phillipe, the most 'sexual' person in the movie, gives a strong performance as the suave and viscous animal Sebastian, who slowly lets obsession take over his life. Sarah Michelle Gellar as his stepsister is equally as good, although she's found much better roles, like the one in "Simply Irresistible" from earlier this year. Both Gellar and Phillipe, of course, costarred in the movie "I Know What You Did Last Summer," but here, they get to develop an intriguing chemistry together. They obviously want more to do with each other than just being step-siblings, but they hold us at bay, and don't give in to the feelings until, naturally, the bet has been achieved. Whether or not it gets that far is redundant to the plot and to the viewers reaction; we know how they feel, and that's all that matters. The sex is merely a backdrop for their high-class, rudely luxurious lives, as if the filmmaker simply wants to add in outrageousness in the whole concept to carry over a modern feel. There was, of course, sex in "Dangerous Liasons," but those people were adults, as the ones in "Cruel Intentions" are teenagers. The sexual escapades obviously change, and feel 'modernized' a bit.

But if the movie has weaknesses, they belong to the one-dimensional characteristics of Witherspoon's character, who has morals, of course, but isn't strong enough to ensure stableness in those morals. The humor degrading "queers," or "homos," is relentless and crude. This is supposed to be (in ways) a comedy, but it's not funny so much as it is dramatic. You have great interaction between characters, and the use of sex as the plot of downfall, but sometimes, they are taken to far and too over the top. You don't feel like these things should be happening, even to characters as morally grotesque as these.

But if there's one thing the movie doesn't screw up, it's the messages involving the deceit and obsession surrounding a little game called sex. It allows us to understand the material in ways that we couldn't understand it before. The themes are intact, and for some fans of the original story, that should be all that matters.

1999, David Keyes, Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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