“Cruel Intentions” is what many would describe as camp, but also high camp–which is probably why I love it so much. For a time where just about everything in the nineties was derived from classic literature only re-worked for teens (“Pygmalion,” “Emma,” “Romeo & Juliet” to name a few), I’m surprised anyone thought it would be a great idea to take “Dangerous Liasons” and turn it in to an erotic thriller marketed for younger audiences. While the movie doesn’t feature teenagers, it’s heavily dominated by a cast of young actors entering their early twenties, along with a lot of intimations toward prepubescent sex.
“Cruel Intentions” is very much a mainstream thriller that attempts to broaden the premise of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s “Les Liaisons dangereuses” and it does a great job of it, while also filling the cast with a veritable who’s who of nineties stars. Roger Kumble’s campy erotic thriller was a pop culture rage when released in 1999 and today it’s a pretty bang up adaptation of the original novel that many studios are still trying to grab some sort of franchise out of. After two embarrassing straight to video sequels (one starring future Oscar contender Amy Adams!), various networks and studios have attempted to turn the film in to a television series, and every time it failed.
For “Cruel Intentions,” it’s a mainstream erotic thriller, but still one that dabbles in ideas that were considered immensely risqué in 1999. There were so many moments that were considered shocking in its time that today are common place and kind of dull. There is a long make out sequence between two women, heavily implied and described gay sex, descriptions of oral sex, and anal sex, and the heavy incestuous relationship between half brother and sister Kathryn Merteuil and Sebastian Valmont.
They’re an amoral pair of gorgeous people set in New York City that spend pretty much all of their time looking their next sexual conquest and do so no matter who they hurt or what trail of tears they leave behind. When we first meet Sebastian he’s spent a good amount of his time in therapy trying to seduce his therapist, and at the end of their session reveals that he’d slept with her daughter.
From there, we get to know the twisted inner workings of Sebastian and Kathryn, both of whom make a sport out of manipulation, exploitation, and laughing at any semblance of genuine emotion. Sebastian has slept with just about every girl in their posh neighborhood and social circle and is eager to sleep with Kathryn. Kathryn makes a bet with Sebastian that if he can seduce and sleep with Annette Hargrove, a new student and the virginal daughter of their school’s headmaster, that he can have Kathryn. Along the way though the heartless Sebastian forms affections for Annette, and falls in love with her. But as he forms a genuine love for her, his past comes back to haunt him and Annette has to figure out how she feels about him and his acts.
As I mentioned before, “Cruel Intentions” brings on a “who’s who” of nineties actors, all of whom were up and comers, and many became humongous stars. There’s Ryan Phillipe, Charlie O’Connell, Selma Blair, Joshua Jackson, Eric Mabius, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tara Reid, and of course, Reese Witherspoon. For the sake of changing up her squeaky clean image as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sarah Michelle Gellar is about as risqué and erotic as humanly possible without ever taking off her clothing. For someone with a soap opera background, she’s right at home here playing the villainous who delights in making people suffer for her own gain. The stand out though is Selma Blair, the delightfully naïve and often goofy Cecille Caldwell, who is used and abused by the siblings quite often.
Cecille is in love with her music teacher, an African American man that her mother completely despises for his race, and Kathryn and Sebastian, of course, find a way to exploit that for their favor. Selma Blair is one of my favorite aspects of “Cruel Intentions,” as while everyone else is obviously aware of what kind of movie they’re in, Blair’s physical comedy, along with her willingness to engage in the film’s most memorable scene is still very entertaining. Blair’s own unique beauty topped by her ability to pull off some great pratfalls, including a hilariously dumb victory dance when Kathryn proclaims losing her virginity as being a part of some “secret society.”
The movie is notable mainly for the tabloid headlines that followed, but it’s an erotic, raunchy, and deliriously campy drama with a wonderful soundtrack and a glimmer at the great screen presences of folks like Blair, and Witherspoon. I still re-visit it whenever I can and love it for how accessible it is from all angles as a film, an adaptation, and a radical re-imagining of an erotic classic.