The question: Can producer Neal H. Moritz take a couple of his stars from his teen horror hit “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and successfully transport them to yet another screen version of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”? The answer: an unequivocal “yes.”
In his feature film debut, writer-director Roger Kumble honors the spirit of the 1782 Choderlos de Laclos novel with admirable fidelity. In doing so he’s asking young audiences to identify with the eternal dark side of human nature in contemporary yet ultra-aristocratic settings instead of with mainly decent, middle-class kids caught up in scary situations that are the staple of the youth market. And in place of thrills and chills there is quite a bit of blunt language and sexuality, both appropriate, however, to the milieu.
“Cruel Intentions” is a stretch for all concerned, including the targeted audience, one that pays off handsomely--and works for older moviegoers as well. Actually, simply setting De Laclos’ cautionary tale in a younger generation arguably enhances its impact, for young people are less likely than their elders to realize that vulnerability can turn out to be the obverse side of cynicism.
No two young people could be more cynical than step-siblings Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar), whose mother has married the father of Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe). Rich, bored and clearly neglected by their parents--for whom they have nothing but contempt--Kathryn and Sebastian, who live alone in a vast Upper East Side apartment, have no real interests outside playing games with other people’s emotions. The unthinkable has happened to Kathryn: Her boyfriend has dumped her for the innocent, klutzy Cecile (Selma Blair). Sebastian, who already has a reputation as a lady-killer, readily agrees to deflower the virginal Cecile in revenge.
But higher stakes loom: Sebastian reads in Seventeen a column by Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of the new headmaster of the posh Manhattan prep school Kathryn and Sebastian attend; in it Annette asserts that she intends to save herself for marriage. That does it: If he succeeds in seducing her, Kathryn will give herself--"the only woman you can’t have"--to him. If he fails, he has to give Kathryn his 1956 red Jaguar.
Many more machinations ensue, involving many others, all of which bring Kathryn and Sebastian into confrontations with themselves. They are glib, ruthless, glamorous--and unknowing of their own hearts.
Beneath her chic wardrobe and patina of sophistication, Kathryn, played with cold confidence by Gellar, is no different from the campus queens of many another teen movie. Sebastian has a tad more conscience, not to mention hidden emotional depths, than Kathryn and is more interesting for it. The filmmakers have deliberately echoed the atmosphere of the De Laclos novel, and in fact the French interiors of many a luxury 1920s Manhattan apartment or great country estate of earlier eras have 18th century French-style interiors, some of them lifted from actual chateaux and Paris townhouses. In these Louis XV-XVI settings, Phillippe fits right in; his golden good looks are like those of the lovers in the Fragonards and Bouchers at the Frick Museum. More important, as an actor Phillippe is engaging and equal to the range that Sebastian affords him.
Witherspoon’s Annette is chaste without being a prude, religious without being puritanical, a thoroughly likable young woman who ultimately is less naive than either Kathryn or Sebastian. Blair is a delicious scene-stealer, and her Cecile is the amusingly thickheaded type who always thinks she’s got it when she’s utterly clueless.
There are especially sharp portrayals from Christine Baranski as Cecile’s social-climbing, racist mother; Swoosie Kurtz as a slick, mercenary therapist; and Sean Patrick Thomas as Cecile’s amorous music teacher. Jon Gary Steele’s production design is knowing, detailed and crucial to this handsome film set entirely in the world of the privileged, and Edward Shearmur’s score echoes the film’s shifting moods elegantly but with a jaunty driving insistence that underlines the film’s witty, satirical tone and relentless sense of inevitability.
Given a rich, burnished look by cinematographer Theo Van de Sande, “Cruel Intentions” is a very grown-up picture for kids.
* MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual dialogue and sexual situations involving teens, and for language and drug use. Times guidelines: The film’s themes and situations are inappropriate for children.
Ryan Phillippe: Sebastian Valmont
Sarah Michelle Gellar: Kathryn Merteuil
Reese Witherspoon: Annette Hargrove
Selma Blair: Cecile Caldwell
A Columbia Pictures presentation in association with Original Film and Newmarket Capital Group. Writer-director Roger Kumble; suggested by the novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” by Choderlos de Laclos. Producer Neal H. Moritz. Executive producer Michael Fottrell. Cinematographer Theo Van de Sande. Editor Jeff Freeman. Music Edward Shearmur. Costumes Denise Wingate. Production designer Jon Gary Steele. Art director David S. Lazan. Set decorator Tessa Posnansky. Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes.
In general release.