Friday June 12, 1998
In her long and varied career, Bette Davis played many a memorable heroine, but she never got to play her namesake, Balzac's Cousin Bette. Davis would have been perfect as the plain, impoverished spinster who engineers revenge against her rich, selfish relatives.
Had she had the chance, her film probably would have been more serious and melodramatic than the delightfully tart yet blithe-spirited "Cousin Bette" that director Des McAnuff and his adapters have fashioned so artfully for Jessica Lange, a talented star who never stops trying to extend her range as an actress.
That no one seems to notice what a beautiful, sensual woman Lange's Bette is--even given the severe attire and hairdo appropriate to her station in life--serves to underline the cruel yet often comical obtuseness of all who surround her. The exception is Elisabeth Shue's lively Jenny Cadine, an artiste at a music hall where Bette is employed as a costumer. (The two women become fast friends when Bette exposes Jenny's admirable derriere in one outfit.)
It's Paris, 1846, and France is heading toward revolution, and you can be sure that Bette is one person who'll be able to take that in stride when it arrives. Life for the 40ish Bette has been one long affront. As a child, she was treated like Cinderella without the fairy godmother while her cousin Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin) was pampered and groomed to marry well. ("A family like ours could only push forward one girl," says a tight-lipped Bette.)
When Adeline dies, her widower Hector (Hugh Laurie), a rake who's running through the family fortune, leads Bette to believe he's proposing marriage--only to ask her to stay on as housekeeper for his Parisian palace, vast enough for a Bourbon. Such indignities dog Bette until she at last feels driven to turn the tables.
The charm of this "Cousin Bette," which plays emotion against the artifice of a grand theatrical style of speech and gesture, lies in the fact that while Bette sets those who have wronged her on a course of disaster, they really are responsible for their fates in all their self-absorbed, feather-brained foolishness. If they possessed an ounce of self-knowledge or perception, they might pick up the tinge of bitter irony in so many of Bette's remarks.
And if Bette is no monster--we sympathize fully with her every move--neither are her victims. They're in fact rather likably shallow: Hector wouldn't intentionally hurt a fly, and the starving yet lazy sculptor, Wenceslas (Aden Young), captures not only Bette's heart but also that of Hector's silly daughter Hortense (Kelly Macdonald) and even apparently that of the hard-headed Jenny Cadine, Hector's mistress. The worthiest of the men in Bette's world is the plain-spoken Crevel (Bob Hoskins), who says he values money above all else yet proves a loyal friend to Hector.
Although the elegant, highly formal world of "Cousin Bette" seems remote from ours, its truths are timeless: the price of self-involvement can spell disaster not only for the individual but also society at large; the only person on which you can ever truly rely is yourself in a world where ultimately you are alone. All this is familiar wisdom, and McAnuff was wise to approach Balzac with tongue slightly in cheek. The point of his "Cousin Bette" is that its dissection of human frailties be fun.
At first you have the feeling that Shue might not get to shine as brightly as Lange, but she gradually comes to the fore as the film unfolds. Through the friendship of Bette and Jenny, so unlikely on the surface, we're able to see the precariousness of the position of women at the time.
This graceful, effervescent and amusingly arch "Cousin Bette" is, amid its catalog of human follies, more about endurance than revenge.
Cousin Bette, 1998. R, for sexuality. A Fox Searchlight Pictures presentation. Director Des McAnuff. Producer, Sarah Radclyffe. Writers/executive producers, Susan Tarr, Lynn Siefert; based on the novel "Cousin Bette" by Honore de Balzac. Cinematographer, Andrzej Sekula. Editors, Tariq Anwar, Barry Alexander Brown. Costumes, Gabriella Pescucci. Music, Simon Boswell. Production designer, Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski. Art directors, Richard Bridgland, Bertrand Clercq-Roques. Set decorator, Robert Le Corre. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes. Jessica Lange as Bette. Elisabeth Shue as Jenny Cadine. Wenceslas as Aden Young. Kelly Macdonald as Hortense. Bob Hoskins as Crevel.