Okay. Let us get the fact that Cruel Intentions, the 1999 Roger Kumble film starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Wetherspoon and Selma Blair was based on an 18th Century book called Les Liaisons Dangereuses out of the way. Let’s make a quick reference to the movie adaptation Dangerous Liaisons from 1988 out of the way. They follow a similar structure of over-privileged step-siblings at a prestigious prep school manipulating fellow students for their own selfish purposes. One of them falls in love with a virgin and there’s a whole bet about one of them sleeping with her and there’s sex involved in a wager.
This structure has followed a strong rigid lineage through the centuries, including a play and an opera with the original French setting. But this 1999 movie provides a much bigger impact on the direction of the concept than it has previously, with sequels, failed pilots, a musical, a Korean remake, and the odd anniversary showing worldwide. Yet it wasn’t critically praised or a massive box-office hit. So why does Cruel Intentions seemingly linger in the memory of teenage dramas?
What’s incredibly interesting about the film when you revisit it is that it somehow manages to catch a period of teenage time in a capsule and yet not feel dated. Technology isn’t really a key part of the story, and setting aside a web page at the start and some cell phone conversations it could feel as if it was happening today. Only with less Snapchat. The modern day teenager would probably question how the reputation of Phillipe’s character Sebastian Valmont and Gellar’s Kathryn Merteuil have gone under the radar of Instagram and Snapchat, but apart from that it refuses to date itself on screen. Plus the use of letters instead of text messages could raise a few eyebrows, but it does elevate the idea of the romance that the letters between two certain characters signify. The only real indicators of age come with its soundtrack.
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The sexual politics within the film are also quite questionable. The main threads involve Phillipe’s character trying to corrupt two teenagers with Gellar’s help, with the goal of sleeping with Gellar at the end of it. But lo and behold, Phillipe’s character develops a conscience, as he falls for one of his attempted conquests and seeks redemption. The cavalier aspect of how this is handled verges on disbelief at times, but the performances of the main cast mask a lot of what you see. The film makes no attempt to glorify Kathryn, as she’s seen as manipulative from the get go and you have no sympathy for her. Sebastian is shown being a bad influence so it’s hard to gain any sympathy for him until late into the film.
In the past twenty years, the world has seen sequels, prequels and spin-offs abound. Cruel Intentions 2 was an attempt to try and develop a pilot for a prequel series and had future award-winner Amy Adams star as Kathryn. A jukebox musical was commissioned in 2015 and acts as a 90’s disco sung by the characters of the film. There was even a pilot episode of a series of the same name in which Gellar reprised the role of Kathryn and had to face the appearance of Sebastian’s teenage son.
It’s not hard to see why it’s lasted and why there have been attempts to continue the story/franchise. The cast are very good. Gellar has one of her best roles that doesn’t involve sticking wood into the undead, the script can be incredibly witty at times and it does lead to a satisfying conclusion for some of the characters. It offers escapism to a part of society that the majority of the audience weren’t a part of, and judging by this are glad they weren’t.
It’s highly doubtful that they won’t try to do something else with the idea – but if you haven’t seen Cruel Intentions, then it’s worth revisiting.