Reaction to Cruel Intentions

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By Craig Joseph

It’s with great disappointment and not a little embarrassment that I write this post, for I can’t explain the oversight: how, when making a list of the 30 most influential movies in my life, I managed to pass over the gem that is Cruel Intentions.  It has everything that a film aesthete and elitist could desire.

First off: literary antecedents.  Based on the 1782 French novel, Les Liaisons dangereuses, by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, this cinematic masterwork cleverly transposes the technique of the epistolary novel into a contemporary teenage milieu.  Certainly, there are still letters and diaries which carry the various conspirators’ words and intrigues back and forth, but we now have cell phones, e-mails, and passed notes in the classroom to lend weight and gravitas to the proceedings.  Nothing screams sexual intrigue like a well-placed LOL.

Second: cinematic antecedents.  While John Malkovich, Glenn Close and Michelle Pfeiffer turned in passable work in the ’88 film, Dangerous Liaisons, this latter adaptation improves upon their efforts by offering up the tour de force acting trinity of Phillippe, Gellar and Witherspoon.  One can feel the authentic and unsuspected love growing between Sebastian and Annette, not least of all – one supposes – because of the real affection springing up between costars Ryan and Reese which resulted in their long and abiding marriage.  And how could one not revel in the revelation that is Selma Blair as Cecile?  Physical comedy and facial expressions finely honed so as to be as subtle as a charging rhinoceros.

The rapturous use of language is a third reason for admiration.  De Laclos could only give us this: “When one woman strikes at the heart of another, she seldom misses, and the wound is invariably fatal.” And Christopher Hampton’s slacker screenplay lamely suggested that “shame is like pain; you only feel it once.”  Meanwhile, Intentions gifts us “The only thing you’ll be riding is me” and “You can put it anywhere.”  Why build tension and suspense through rapport, entendre and metaphor when you can just be slutty?  Who has the time?

And the film’s true greatness comes in the  surprising way it explodes stereotypes.  The sweet and gentle Black man, educated in the cello and sheepishly in love with Cecile, suddenly turning into an instigator of violence?  I never saw it coming.  And let’s not forget gay Dawson who may or may not have told a white lie to set in motion a plan that allows him a night of pleasure with the football jock.  A gay man as a voracious and promiscuous sexual predator?  Tres nouveau!

Truly, I’m distressed that Tim beat me to the punch by including this on his list.  I’m hard pressed to drum up a film that better captures what our experience as high schoolers and college students in the Midwest was like.  While I certainly long to return to the days when – for fun – I’d attempt to sexually ruin a classmate, get a lap dance from my sister and wreak havoc while my parents were inexplicably gone for months at a time, I guess I’ve grown up.  And adulthood is pretty boring.

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