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Wednesday, March 10, 1999

Cruel Intentions

Posted By on Wed, Mar 10, 1999 at 12:00 AM

In this version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Choderlos de Laclos’ novel of high-stakes seduction, writer-director Roger Kumble can’t seem to decide what kind of movie he wants to make. This is reflected in the film’s sexual dialogue, which flip-flops from coyly suggestive (concealing) to shockingly blatant (revealing).

Unlike a pair of recent screen adaptations – Dangerous Liaisons (1989) and Valmont (1989) – Kumble updates the story and adds an intriguing twist: He makes the players of these manipulative sexual games ultrawealthy Manhattan teenagers. The choice is ripe with possibilities, most of which Cruel Intentions lets go to waste.

Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) and Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) are siblings by marriage, which doesn’t mean their jet-setting parents can be bothered with supervising them. During the summer vacation before their senior year at a posh boarding school, these whip-smart, easily bored teens are up to their old tricks, namely playing chess with human pieces.

Kathryn and Sebastian begin a convoluted game of one-upsmanship that involves turning the klutzy virgin, Cecile (Selma Blair), into a sexual sophisticate while proving that the virtuous Annette (Reese Witherspoon), who has written a wait-until-marriage manifesto in Seventeen, is really a hot-to-trot hypocrite.

Cruel Intentions substitutes teenage status-seeking for the nobility milieu of the 1784 novel with only partial success. Kumble makes certain assumptions – that high school humiliation is a fate worse than death – but doesn’t back them up with any concrete situations within the context of the film.

When Kathryn bemoans the double standard afforded men and women with multiple partners – stud versus slut – it’s an extremely valid point. But her potentially complex character is quickly reduced to a shrill bitch, which means she can easily be dismissed. Roger Kumble wants to make a witty updating (à la Clueless), but when it comes to important points, he employs a breezy shorthand instead of digging in and making an emotional connection with the audience. For all its in-your-face bravado, Cruel Intentions says nothing fresh about sexuality, adolescent or otherwise. It just repaints an old story in Day-Glo tones.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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