Film discussion

Cruel Intentions (1999) – Teen Movie Rewind

In our Teen Movie Rewind series, we explore coming of age stories and teen cinema, looking at the impact of the films themselves and the careers that they made.

It really does feel like there are no original ideas in Hollywood. Certainly, the avalanche of remakes, comic book movies and never-ending sequels make it seems like it’s a new problem, but Hollywood has always had a habit of turning to other movies and sources with which to bring stories to the screen.

After the success of Clueless and its modern version of Emma, studios started looking towards other classics in the English Literature department and remaking them – this time with teen protagonists. This wasn’t something that stopped in the 90s, with the 2000s and beyond also giving us teen movie versions of Othello (O), The Scarlet Letter (Easy A) and The Taming of the Shrew (10 Things I Hate About You), and more often than not, these movies usually ended up being really good and, like so many of the biggest teen movies, launched the careers of future stars.

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Easy A was a big contributor in cementing Emma Stone as a major talent, while 10 Things I Hate About You would give us star-making performances from Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Many of these movies took an approach that took the stories into the realm of comedies more than anything else, with Easy A taking a more comedic, albeit still intelligent, approach to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story, possibly even better than the actual 1996 movie version that starred Demi Moore and Gary Oldman.

While Baz Luhrmann’s version of Romeo + Juliet brought Shakespeare’s love story to the present day, it didn’t shy away from the tragic twists and fidelity to the text, and similarly, Cruel Intentions very much modernised Les Liaisons dangereuses without changing the tone or the sexually charged nature of the original story, but simply added some ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ by The Verve and gave the tale a more upbeat conclusion compared to the novel.

The late-80s had brought with it not one but two competing versions of the story, with Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons in 1988 and Milos Forman’s Valmont the following year, but it was Frears’ film with its electrifying cast of Michelle Pfeiffer, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman and John Malkovich that scored better reviews and box office. Eleven years later, the story would be given a modern equivalent that would prove just as successful.

With its trailer backed by ‘6 Underground’ by Sneaker Pimps on the soundtrack, and cast including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair, Cruel Intentions arrived the same year that 10 Things I Hate About You was giving the audience a swoonsome modern version of The Taming of the Shrew, but took the teen movie genre into a pit of dark sexuality, and one that never shied away from the more salacious aspects of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ source material.

Some of those salacious aspects have the potential to make the film a little wince-inducing when viewed today, especially given how manipulative the characters can be in trying to have sex, but then this has always been a story knee-deep in manipulations and characters filled with a sexual drive, and Roger Kumble’s film never shies away from that. Dressing it up with designer-clothed lead characters and setting it in a preppy New York makes the bitter elements a little easier to swallow, but the bitterness is still there, even if it is washed away with a somewhat happier conclusion for two of its lead characters.

Sarah Michelle Gellar had already been a massive star and somewhat of an icon thanks to her performance as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but she had auditioned for the role of mean girl Cordelia before being given the lead role in that series, and her performance as Kathryn here was something of an indication of what her performance as Cordelia might have been like if she had been given that role instead of the lead.

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She rules the screen throughout, showing that there is so much more to her than playing the complex heroism of a vampire slayer, and with rising stars such as Phillipe and Witherspoon amongst the cast, it really shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise when it became something of a box office hit in 1999, something of a golden year for movies.

The film was met with somewhat sniffy reviews from mainstream critics (although it found a champion in the late, great Roger Ebert) but it was a sufficient enough box office hit and made such a nice profit for Sony that plans were put in place make a continuation of it, of sorts.

If one was to peruse a video store in the early 2000s, chances are your eyes would have come across Cruel Intentions 2, and a few years later Cruel Intentions 3. Obviously, the first thought one might have is that these were straight to video titles, and to an extent they were, but the second film had an interesting history on its way to the video store.

In fact, what constituted Cruel Intentions 2 were three episodes of a failed television prequel series entitled Manchester Prep that were edited together to make a feature-length movie and which had more explicit nudity and sexual scenes added to the runtime after the decision was made to release them in feature-length format. It’s somewhat notable now for starring a then-unknown Amy Adams as Kathryn.

As for Cruel Intentions 3, it had very little in common with the original film bar the surname Merteuil for one of the characters, and was little seen. A more high profile potential follow up came about in 2015 when Roger Kumble once again tried to take the route of a television series, this time with Sarah Michelle Gellar. A pilot for a television sequel was filmed with a potential home at NBC but it sadly was never picked up.

The fact that this little movie based on Dangerous Liaisons has had two semi-sequels and was very nearly on the cusp of being a television series says a lot about it. It wasn’t uncommon for teen movies of the 90s to make the move to the smaller screen. Clueless did it, as did 10 Things I Hate About You, but Cruel Intentions struggled to make the move beyond that first movie.

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It was a flash in the pan that enraptured audiences for that one brief moment during its release and that was about it. It encapsulated a moment when Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillipe headlined a film and Reese Witherspoon was on her way to becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world.

It may be a more salacious film with themes and tropes more reminiscent of erotic thrillers, but it was also a film that encompassed a time when such movies were more common. Elements of it may not have aged well, and certainly the kiss between Gellar and Selma Blair made headlines in such a way that almost felt more like queerbaiting and a male heterosexual fantasy than trying to represent LGBTQ themes on screen, but the film as a whole still remains a fascinating product of its time.

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