Review: Cruel Intentions

I recently watched the 1999 teen classic Cruel Intentions. And wow, what a ride.

A modern adaptation of the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons dangereuses or Dangerous Liaisons, Cruel Intentions is an at times shockingly arch satire of narcissism and privilege among wealthy Upper East Side New Yorkers.

Staring actors who were then (and continue to be in the case of Reese Witherspoon) the hottest of hot teen talent (Ryan Phillipe, Sarah Michelle-Geller and Selmar Blair), the film is incredibly provocative when it comes to its portrayal of its controlling, even sociopathic protagonists. What garnered the most headlines and controversy at the time of its release, the same-sex make out session between Geller and Blair which takes place in Central Park, is no longer particularly provocative, but many aspects of the plot have become even more so in the years since its release.

The basic plot involves two step-children (Geller and Phillipe) entering into a bet in which success for Phillipe (by successfully convincing a homespun, Southern girl (Witherspoon) to have sex with him), is to then have the opportunity to sleep with his step-sister (Geller). If that sounds convoluted, it kind of is, but the complexity of the storyline is secondary to the simple craziness of what goes on in the films 90 minutes.

This is not to say that the film isn’t great fun – it is. Every performance is imbued with so much dark humour and satire that even the most offensive tropes and comments don’t tend to land with much force. We as the audience are not laughing at those who the characters seek to put down, but rather at the characters themselves, for their sheer ridiculousness and abject narcissism.

A truly winning performance from Witherspoon also serves to add some much needed heart to the film. Now a mainstay of successful Hollywood productions, both in front and behind the scree, Witherspoon even manages to bring out a small aspect of the human side in the otherwise absurdly aloof Phillipe. Apart from this minor deviation, renown film critic Roger Ebert was dead on in describing the film and its protagonists as 'merciless'. 

Its depiction of the shallowness and emotional void at the centre of the lives of the rich, powerful and pointless is best summarised in Geller's declaration that, despite having everything that everyone else wants and even the ability to present as wholesome when required and avante garde when desirable, she is after all 'the Marcia f*^$@ing Brady of the Upper East Side' and sometimes, even she wants to 'kill herself'. Again, this film is not one for the faint of heart and well before the tradition of content warnings.

I don’t know if I’ve done a great job of selling it, but I’d recommend giving it a look if you haven’t before. It’ll certainly hold your attention!

Tagged in Review, movies, what messes with your head