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Dangerous Liaisons lite
on November 7, 2001
It's probably better if you haven't seen Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons (1989), starring Glenn Close, John Malkovich and Michelle Pfeiffer, or Milos Forman's Valmont (1988) with Annette Bening, Colin Firth and Meg Tilly. If you have, Roger Kumble's Cruel Intentions (1999), starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, and Reese Witherspoon, which is also based on the novel by the Frenchman Choderlos de Laclos, will seem to lack finesse. Kumble wrote his own screenplay as a kind of Les Liaisons Dangereuses in modern dress, whereas Frears and Forman relied more heavily upon the stage play by Christopher Hampton, depicting the aristocracy of 18th century France. While the two earlier movies sparkle with wit, insight and a cynicism to chill the fondest heart, Kumble's venture features a more prosaic brand of sexual humor adorned agreeably with young, nubile bodies.
But there is no need to make odious comparisons. Cruel Intentions can stand on its own, and there is plenty to admire, especially Gellar in a role to which she is perfectly suited, and Witherspoon as well. Phillippe is also good, especially when he's being funny, although his unconscious imitation of John Malkovich was a bit obsequious. He delivered some of his lines with the same deadpan expression and intonation. But being as pretty as he is, Phillippe's character is more like Colin Firth's. Selma Blair's narrow-eyed and dotty Cecile was pretty, sexy, and funnier than either Uma Thurman or Fairuza Balk, who played similar roles in the above mentioned movies, respectively.
The scene with the shrink to begin was very agreeable and should have been followed up somehow. We never see Sebastian quite so diabolical later on. Too bad. And seeing a little more of Swoosie Kurtz who played the self-centered, phony and hypocritical Dr. Regina Greenbaum would have enhanced the film.
The idea of making Sebastian and Kathryn step siblings was amusing and spicy, and the inclusion of a raunchy gay footballer was appropriate. Using a black guy as Cecile's harp teacher was kinky good. And being rather up-front about sex throughout without being overly juvenile was refreshing. The business with Sebastian Valmont's diary of conquests worked well both psychologically and as a plot device.
The main failing with Kumble's movie, aside from the general superficiality, was that Sebastian's "conquest" of Annette was a little too easy, especially with the goody-goody build-up she had been given. Consequently, her falling in love was more like a stumble. There was some physical passion, but nothing like the full-blown emotional passion required. Also I think the ending needed a little work. It seemed that a committee divined it, part of them wanting a "happy" love ending for Reese and Ryan, and the other half wanting to stay somewhat true to the spirit of the original, and so they came to a compromise, as committees will, and we got mishmash.
Incidentally, there is yet a fourth movie version of this tale, Dangerous Liaisons (1960), from French director Roger Vadim. I am looking forward to seeing it, if I can find a copy.