[box cover]

Cruel Intentions: Collector's Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Video

Starring Starring Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe,
and Sarah Michelle Gellar

"Inspired" by the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos
Written for the screen and directed by Roger Kumble

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It's a shrewd concept: transplanting the Machiavellian sexual power struggles of Choderlos de Laclos' 18th century novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses into the contemporary milieu of raging teen hormones. It's a perfect fit, and writer-director Roger Kumble assembled a dashing, sexy cast for his debut: Reese Witherspoon, Ryan Phillippe, and Sarah Michelle Gellar. If only he were a decent writer or a capable director, he may have had quite a film here.

Gellar plays Kathryn Merteuil, the much admired student body president of Manchester, a prestigious co-ed private school for Manhattan blue bloods. Her reputation as a role model is equaled only by her penchant for sexual manipulation and deceit. Her stepbrother, Sebastian Valmont (Phillippe) is also preceded by his reputation, which accurately nails him as a heartless lothario always on the lookout for a new conquest.

The school year nearly upon them, Kathryn and Sebastian are reeling from upper class ennui and plotting schemes to escape from the boredom of affluent leisure. Kathryn takes under her wing a naive ingenue, Cecile (Selma Blair), with the pretense of preparing the innocent for life at Manchester. What she really wants, however, is to ruin the fledgling's reputation in retaliation to an ex-beau who fancies Cecile.

Sebastian has a loftier goal. There's a new student starting at Manchester in the fall, Annette Hargrove (Witherspoon), somewhat of a national spokesperson for teen abstinence. The purest conquest imaginable. Kathryn doubts his abilities, and the two fashion a wager. If Sebastian fails to seduce Annette, Kathryn takes possession of his prized 1956 Jaguar convertible. If he succeeds, he earns the sexual acquiescence of his stepsister.

Although Kumble merely credits de Laclos' famous novel as "inspiration," this is as faithful as movie adaptations get, right down to the key character names, scenes, and snatches of dialog. It's where Kumble strays that his movie falls apart.

Kumble clumsily attempts to integrate de Laclos' formal dialog with casual teen colloquialisms. The former sounds out of place and clashes with the latter, which has the hollow ring of what adults think teens talk like. But this is a minor flaw.

Bizarrely, Kumble makes unnecessary, yet vital, changes in two major characters, eroding not only the dramatic thrust of his story but also undermining its credibility. The much-coveted Cecile, whose very attractiveness propels crucial character motives and plot devices, is sacrificed to the altar of cheap laughs and portrayed as a crude, clumsy buffoon. That there should be any struggle for her affections is bewildering.

Also missing from Kumble's adaptation is any religious conviction on the part of Annette. Perhaps he felt it would be positive to portray a self-willed virgin spurred solely by personal morals, but that has little to do with the story, and as a result, her seduction by Sebastian carries all the dramatic weight of a fickle change of mind, not a betrayal of faith.

In fact, one of Annette's crucial scenes — and a key moment of conflict in the novel, where she implores pursuing Sebastian to prove his declared love by leaving her company and never speaking to her again — is only to be found on the deleted scenes reel of this "collector's edition" DVD. What a thing to leave out! Also amongst the deleted footage is the violent exchange between Sebastian and Kathryn during which, although poorly written and awkward here, they declare war on one another.

The end effect of Kumble's insufficient adaptation skills is a story of sly cunning and brewing trauma which flies by too quickly and with too little effect on the victims of these sexual predators. Incredibly, Kumble crafted a baffling ending in which Annette and Cecile willingly expose their own ruination to the public. So what was this movie about again?

There are good moments in Cruel Intentions, mostly due to Phillippe, who finds an appealing shallowness in Sebastian. Witherspoon, who is an excellent actress, can do little with her shell of a character, and Gellar is sadly unthreatening — yet another TV actress who appears to have little to offer beyond a pleasing gallery of cute expressions.

There are three other film versions of this novel, the most popular of which is Stephen Frears' exquisitely acted, brooding 1988 adaptation of Christopher Hampton's adapted play, Dangerous Liaisons, with the incomparable trio of John Malkovich, Glenn Close, and Michelle Pfieffer. The very next year, with a perspective similar to (and more successful than) Kumble's, Milos Forman directed the underappreciated Valmont, in which Colin Firth as Valmont and Annette Bening as Merteuil approach their schemes with child-like disregard for consequence.

Also with Swoozie Kurtz, Tara Reid, and Christine Baranski.

Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen or pan-and-scan, as selected from the main menu, and Dolby Digital 5.1. Features audio commentary by director Roger Kumble and practically his entire crew, two behind-the-scenes featurettes, six deleted scenes, and music videos by Placebo and Marcy Playground. Keep Case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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