Sebastian is stuck in every adolescent’s dream. At an age where his hormones are raging out of control he questions the policy of respecting women and love. Day in, day out women fall at his feet and all he has to do is work his cunning charm to rob them of their purity. Being sent to sleep by the girls he has so leisurely seduced in the past, Sebastian pinpoints the ultimate challenge – the pure, beautiful, blue-blooded head master’s daughter Annette Hargrove (Witherspoon).
Hearing of Sebastian’s problematical challenge, Kathryn spots a perfect opportunity for a wager. If Sebastian fails to lure Annette into his bed, he will have to part with his beloved, priceless 1956 Jaguar Roadster; on the other hand if he triumphs, he will be rewarded with the most tantalizing accolade of all – Kathryn.
In a sub-plot Kathryn takes the innocent, beautiful but witless Cecile Coldwell (Blair) under her wing. As Kathryn is the most popular girl at school as well as student body president, Mrs Coldwell believes that her daughter is in safe hands but little does she know that behind Kathryn’s pretence lies the devil. Kathryn sets out to destroy Cecile in an attempt to get revenge on her ex-partner and asks Sebastian for much needed help.
Initially Sebastian struggles to connect with Annette on even the simplest levels leaving the wager in doubt. Out of desperation he uses sinister tactics, and to claim his much-awaited accolade he must primarily seduce Annette. Obsessed with Kathryn, ever since their parents got married he will stop at nothing to have her. He needs her, craves her. Blackmailing another pupil puts him back into the wager, consequently forcing him to help Kathryn in her nefarious plan to annihilate Cecile but for his own sadistic intention – to reek havoc on Mrs Coldwell for warning Annette of his reputation. Accompanied by her lesser stepsibling Sebastian, they make an apocalyptic alliance playing a dangerous game of sex and betrayal with Cecile’s life.
Although cruel, ruthless and cunning Sebastian finds himself falling for the smart, beautiful, clever Annette as he stumbles across powerful emotions and a genuine connection with her. Petrified of losing his reputation as a lathario he calls the wager off and tells Annette everything, much to the dismay and envy of Kathryn. Caught up in jealousy Kathryn decides to put an end to the blossoming romance; if she can’t have him no one can, thus the games begin.
What’s right with it? Any film featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar as a dangerous, evil, seductive sex icon is a step in the right direction. Her electric performance as the domineering, vindictive villain is convincing although the coyly raised eyebrow and whimsical sarcasm become slightly predictable and repetitive as the film develops. Yet overall Gellar sinks her fangs into the Kathryn Merteuil role well and rises to the challenge with a sniper’s rifle for a tongue. Shockingly provocative and in complete contrast to the American girl next door she plays in her present teen drama Buffy, Gellar will give audiences worldwide a shock.
Returning once again to British screens, Reese Witherspoon gives another convincing performance as our all-round favourite American Sweetheart. Witherspoon oozes with charm and warmth, convincing the audience of Annette’s innocence. Playing the victim-in-love roles come naturally to Witherspoon making her performance seem believable and confident. On the other hand this is casting at its safest; Witherspoon does what she can with a frankly limited script.
On top form though was relative newcomer ultra-slick Ryan Phillippe. Phillippe is even more treacherous than he is attractive, creating an edgy tension as soon as he appears on screen. As the film progresses you start to sympathise with his character despite the fact that at times his crudity is more than vulgar, his intensity makes him memorising to watch. Sparks fly between Witherspoon and Phillippe as they generate great chemistry creating a genuinely interesting relationship on-screen. Adapted from the 1982 novel Les Liaisons Dangereuse by Choderlos de Laclos ‘Cruel Intentions’ is not the first successful adaptation to come out the Hollywood archives. Over 30s may remember the young Uma Thurman playing virginal Cecile in the 1990s film alongside Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer. Cruel Intentions lacks the darkness of the original film, Dangerous Liaisons, but targets a younger audience. Rather than using middle-aged aristocrats Roger Kumble uses fresh, young teenagers to express the effects of tearing each other apart and finding love. Kumble’s stylish direction depicts the twisted lives of the rich stepsiblings, skilfully presenting the cruel and heartless ways they manipulate their targets and deceive others around them.
Cruel Intentions is the sort of intelligent filmmaking that hasn’t been seen for a long time. Roger Kumble realises that the plot alone is strong enough allowing Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe to achieve their best work to date. It would have been easier to turn the material into a period drama rather than a film but fortunately Kumble doesn’t opt for the easy approach and we get a compelling and emotionally exhausting war of the sexes that rarely flags as it races for the inevitable tragic conclusion.
What’s Wrong With It? I don’t want to overstate how good Cruel Intentions is, but as an adaptation of Dangerous Liaisons it stands out from the rest showing the characters in a more sensitive light. Lacking the much-loved black comedy there are few laughing opportunities throughout the second half of the film. Also, we never get to meet the stepsibling’s parents but we do know that Sebastian’s father is “diddling the Vietnamese maid”.