Revisiting Cruel Intentions

Cruel Intentions was always a favourite. It’s one of those rare ‘teen’ flicks that’s not ridiculously angst-ridden or so overtly sexualised that it feels like a rich man’s American Pie.

For years I’ve tried to figure it out what set it apart, and one Google search (now in the age of Wikipedia) answers the question. It’s based on the French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses, written by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos in 1782, and most famously turned into the 1988 film Dangerous Liaisons starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

That Cruel Intentions is 16 years old was a realisation that led to a few whiskies. In reflection, it holds up remarkably well, although teenagers who watch it today might not quite appreciate that Buffy was the show back in the day.

Is it a film aimed at teens though? Not really. Gellar was 22 when it was released and Ryan Phillippe was 25. That they star as late teenagers doesn’t make it a teen film, even though Phillippe is best known for I Know What You Did Last Summer and Gellar for Buffy. It stands the test of time because, while the teen setting chimed in with the popularity and niche of the two leads, it’s a good take of immorality and cruelty.

Would it have worked if they were at university? Probably not, the stratified reigns of obedience would have been cast off. School is the closest you can get to replicating the conformity and feigned visage of the novel’s pre-revolution French setting; the appearance of decency and respectability when the aristocracy is actually indulging every whim and fancy.

Much has been made that the film is a grand metaphor for wealth and corruption. Certainly, the original source was, but any similarities are purely coincidental as it’s not really a film that’s trying to make a point (beyond trust no one, don’t shit where you eat and don’t get caught with your pants down).

Sexual manipulation, machinations and chicanery are the best elements in the film and make it wonderful. There’s style and memorable performances that are just cool, particularly from Michelle-Gellar.

In many respects it’s Bond-esque; we all dream of having the looks or the wealth to indulge ourselves, men want to be him; women want to be with him. What’s interesting is that my female friends all admit, usually after a glass of wine, that Kathryn Merteuil presents a different side of the same coin, a guilty fantasy of power and control, agreeing that when the main leads discover a love of sorts, the film loses its appeal.

It’s the fallen teen’s answer to The Picture of Dorian Gray, a consequence-free indulgence that ages the viewer and not a painting in the attic. Certainly, it’s the last hurrah of a decade that redefined the ‘teen’ film into something beyond the puerile, and it’s comparable to The Virgin Suicides (also released 1999), which used its youthful cast as a vehicle for the maturity of its subject matter.

Sarah Michelle Gellar was the pin-up girl of the late 90s and early 00s. That she’s playing a provocative role was probably the cynic’s cash cow but she plays the character well and the film remains a memorable one.

Phillippe didn’t go on to have later success and it’s a curious thing. He’s a magnificent bastard, casually cruel and impishly funny with it. Sebastian Valmont’s turnaround for Annette (Reese Witherspoon) is the necessary twist but the point where the film stops being interesting.

Of the film generally, it’s clever and smart, taking many of the epistolary elements of the novel and turning them into a powerful and enduring finale. Kathryn getting her comeuppance is incredibly satisfying because it’s stylish, cruel and features the definitive use of The Verve’s Bittersweet Symphony. Like the rest of the film, the end is a lesson in how to screw someone over that, like the sexual manipulation element, is something we all wish we could do but can’t.

If there’s a nostalgia element it comes wrapped in a bow of what is now vintage 90s music, from Placebo to Skunk Anansie. Ultimately, it’s as enjoyable as it always was, perhaps more so when you draw links to the original, including the characters names.

Will we still be watching it in another 16 years? Most likely.