Buffy's Blair Bitch Project
For those who saw the magnificent 1988 "Dangerous Liaisons" will view "Cruel Intentions" as a travesty, a lame reworking of Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses". But for me it's not a lame reworking but a clever adaptation of the storyline to a modern setting with younger characters, made for a teenage audience, the "Dawson's Creek" generation. As such it plays heavily on the sexual side of the story, delivering exquisite moments of titillation as the dramatic storyline and dodgy liaisons unfold in what has to be said is a clever teenage drama rather than the soft pulp which usually gets made for teenage audiences.
Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar - Scream 2) and her step brother Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe - I Know What You Did Last Summer) are rich, pretentious and very controlling as they like playing mind games with each other and manipulating those around them. In a diabolical wager they set the stakes high as if Sebastian can bed Annette (Reese Witherspoon - Four Christmases) the virginal daughter of their new headmaster he can do what he likes to Kathryn, but if he fails Kathryn gets his prize vintage car. At the same time Kathryn has her own games to play as she spots an opportunity to get even with Cecile (Selma Blair - In & Out), the naive and unrefined young woman who ended up with her ex boyfriend.
The actual storyline to "Cruel Intentions" stays remarkably faithful to Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" but at the same time is adapted in such a way that it will appeal to a teenage audience. So you have this rather strange balancing act going on of sexual intrigue, drama and romance as we watch the manipulative Kathryn and Sebastian set about winning their bets. But what makes it work is that on one hand it's a serious drama and as such you have Reese Witherspoon playing it straight as Annette Hargrove, then you have Selma Blair as the comically unrefined Cecile Caldwell and to top it off you have the overly pretentious Kathryn and Sebastian whose skulduggery borders on the camp. But the mix works because it delivers a clever storyline to a younger audience.
Making all of it even greater is the dialogue, simple almost dumbed down to one liners but it fits in with the whole style. So you have Kathryn and Sebastian Machiavellian dialogue punctuated by modern expressions, the rawness of Cecile as she experiences and expresses the thrill of sex in her own almost uncouth way and then you have Annette who's dialogue is more ordinary and realistic. As such it blends comedy with some cleverly crafted one liners so that it makes you think but also laugh.
And then there is also the tenderness of the storyline, the romance which follows all the game playing and manipulation and whilst never reaching the point of being a truly emotional love story it has its tender moments. Counter balancing that is the semi sexual eroticism of it all, teasing and tantalising you as Kathryn plays games with all those around her especially that of her step brother Sebastian. It's all quite obvious, almost bordering on what some would consider dirty as for want of a better phrase does a lap dance for him but it works in bringing this clever storyline down to the point that a teenage audience can enjoy it.
Plus there is the acting and for such a young cast there are some fine performances. Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathryn delivers a wonderful almost over the top performance raising the whole level of pretentiousness to a serious yet slightly comical level and the same can be said of Ryan Phillippe as the charming Sebastian. In the opening scenes where we meet Sebastian meeting his analyst he sets up such a great character that you are instantly intrigued by this confident womanizer. Add to this Selma Blair who is funny as the unrefined Cecile and Reese Witherspoon who is adorable as the virginal girl next door style character Annette and you have 4 young actors who deliver both memorable characters and performances.
What this all boils down to is that "Cruel Intentions" is a clever adaptation of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" which targets a teenage audience and succeeds. It delivers the cleverness of the story, the drama, the romance and the game playing but with younger characters and simpler dialogue making it easy to watch. But also with the whole balance of comedy and drama it is most importantly entertaining, delivering exactly what a younger audience wants.