In “From the Vault,” Daily Arts takes a new look at old films.
In the eighth grade, I went on a school trip to London. I saw Big Ben and Windsor Castle and watched “Cruel Intentions” at least five times. There must have been something about the spring of 2011 that prompted British television schedulers to play the movie at all hours of the day. It was always on, and we were always watching it.
When I was 14, I thought it was just about the hottest thing I had ever seen. It was the pre-“Gossip Girl” “Gossip Girl.” Rich, good-looking Manhattan teens without any parental supervision getting drunk and having lots of sex. It seemed so unbelievably glamorous. When I rewatched it with my roommate this past week, I thought it was just about the most ridiculous thing I had ever seen. It was melodramatic and absurd, and yet, completely entertaining.
The movie is a modern retelling of “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” an 18th century French novel. Set in 1999 New York City, the film is set in motion by a bet between step-siblings Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Philippe, “I Know What You Did Last Summer”). If Sebastian can seduce their headmaster’s daughter, Annette (Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”), who’s a public supporter of waiting for marriage, then he can sleep with Kathryn. If he fails, then Kathryn gets his car. There’s also a side plot in which Kathryn tries to destroy the reputation of Cecile (Selma Blair, “The People v. O.J. Simpson”), because her ex-boyfriend has been pining after Cecile. It’s a tangle of sex, revenge, manipulation and, as the title would suggest, cruel intentions.
Everything about the film is so wonderfully over-the-top, from Sarah Michelle Geller’s cocaine-filled rosary to Selma Blair’s bratty whine. There isn’t even a hint of subtlety in “Cruel Intentions.” It’s absolutely absurd and absolutely incredible.
But for a plot so dependent on sex, the film’s central sex scene is really disappointing. It’s weird and forced and passionless. It’s a lot of extreme close-ups of a panting Ryan Philippe and Reese Witherspoon’s boob sweat. Why are they so sweaty? How is that possible? Has anyone ever actually sweated that much in the history of the world? Actually, for a movie that spends so much time talking about sex, there isn’t a lot of it. That just makes the hyper-sexualization of characters like Sebastian and Kathryn all the more absurd.
So, 15 years later, many of the original criticisms of the film ring true. It’s a glorified teen soap opera. The acting is bad. The script is awful. But both of those things are just bad enough to make it campy instead of cringe-worthy. It’s full of the kind of sex, drugs and melodrama that cult classics are made of. It’s not a good movie, but it’s so fun to watch.
So, as I paused the movie at the climax of its absurdity to laugh (I won’t spoil the ending but it does involve a fist fight in the middle of Central Park East), my roommate said, “this is so ridiculous, and I love it.”
“Cruel Intentions” has big aspirations. It wants to be both socially and intellectually provocative, it wants to be risky and clever — and it’s none of those things. But it’s so much fun. It’s the perfect bad movie to put you in a good mood.
If you still aren’t sold on “Cruel Intentions” as the ultimate guilty pleasure movie, you get to see Sarah Michelle Gellar stomp her foot and yell, “I’m the Marcia fucking Brady of the Upper East Side.” Really, what could be better than that?