"Cruel Intentions" is literally "Dangerous Liaisons" transplanted to present-day Upper East Side Manhattan and featuring ruthless teenagers playing sexual power games instead of 18th Century French aristocrats.
As such, I fully expected it to be dumbed down beyond all recognition. I expected "Dangerous Liaisons 90210." But I can admit when I'm wrong.
Sexy, savage and succulent, with deliciously cruel and manipulative performances by Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar in the John Malkovich and Glenn Close roles, in its own way this fourth film adaptation of Choderlos De Laclos' scandalous 1782 novel "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" rivals the Malkovich-Close magnum opus in sophistication, dexterity and scintillating deviousness.
For those not familiar with the story, it was originally set in pre-revolutionary Paris and involved a bored and ruthless viscount and marquise living only for sex, deception and revenge, who devise the seduction and ruin of a convent-educated bride-to-be and an evangelistic young wife for sport of it.
Here's how writer-director Roger Kumble has deftly adapted the story for modern times (and hold on to your hats -- it's complicated):
Kathryn (Gellar) and Sebastian (Phillippe) Valmont are step-siblings with ferocious sexual appetites and absolutely no conscience. Both sublimely Machiavellian, they take pleasure in trifling with the hearts and lives of their lovers -- and they've both had plenty.
When Kathryn is thrown over for the first time in her life, she plots vicious revenge on the beau by resolving to corrupt the naive young girl who has taken her place. She recruits the seductive and always successful Sebastian to deflower the innocent debutante, Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair).
But Sebastian thinks this project below his cunning since Cecile already seems all too eager to explore her untapped sexual curiosity. He has in his cross hairs instead a high profile virgin, Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), who wrote a feature for Seventeen magazine entitled "Why I Plan to Wait." The fact that she's also the daughter of the new headmaster at the Valmonts' prep school the just makes conquering her all the more prestigious in his mind.
So a wager is forged between these two manipulators: If Sebastian succeeds with Annette, Kathryn will offer herself to him for one night of completely uninhibited sex. If he fails, she gets his 1956 Jaguar roadster.
Suspension of disbelief is an important prerequisite here, because I don't care what kind of monied, elite family you were born in to, there isn't a 17-year-old on Earth as sophisticated, suave and depraved as these Valmonts.
Fundamentally methodical in their every word and action, their always lavish dialogue is blended beautifully into modern speech patterns and they habitually toss off double-entendres that would make James Bond green with envy. They're both possessed of the kind of confidence few adults ever attain and they dress in luxurious 18th Century-inspired costumes, even when lounging around the house. Not remotely like any teenager I've ever known.
But it's well worth letting go of the teen credibility question to immerse yourself in the manifold manipulation that makes this picture a great guilty pleasure, especially with the dazzling performance by Sarah Michelle Gellar who plunges headlong into the lascivious malevolence that makes Kathryn so delightfully wicked. (Plus she looks great in a corset.)
Although it sometimes plays like "Wild Things" (last years best trashy movie, also about sexually diabolical teens) with a MENSA IQ, "Cruel Intentions" is surprisingly true to De Laclos' book and often mimics the look of "Dangerous Liaisons" right down to the blocking of some scenes.
And yet it's skillfully modernized and sexualized. Where the faithful adaptations have the Marquise verbally coaching the unsophisticated Cecile in ways to pleasure a lover, here Kathryn gives her rather personal lessons in French kissing.
Where "Dangerous Liaisons" finds the Viscount de Valmont blackmailing an oversexed maid for information about his intended conquest, here Sebastian extorts one of Annette's friends, a campus football hero who would rather keep hidden his budding homosexual tendencies. And in a direct nod to its predecessor, Swoosie Kurtz, who played Cecile's mother in "Liaisons," has a cameo as Sebastian's shrink, whose daughter is another of his casualties.
Phillippe is brilliantly seductive and dangerous as Sebastian, who unexpectedly finds himself falling in love with Annette, conquered by her virtue. He embodies affected nonchalance, but is incredible to watch in the sex scene in which he finally surrenders to his emotions, and even more sensational when he fervently denies his feelings in the face of his step-sister's ridicule.
But the love scene doesn't entirely work the other way around. Witherspoon is miscast as the chaste Annette, and while early on she is strong in defending herself and her beliefs against this sexual predator, we never really buy that she subsequently falls in love with him. She lacks the sense of capitulation Michelle Pfeiffer loaned the same role in "Liaisons."
As Cecile, Blair is an even less convincing innocent. She just acts like a 4-year-old who hit puberty a decade early.
The film, which degenerates a bit in the last reel, has many other imperfections -- most notably the way it flogs the plot device of Sebastian's religiously maintained journal. Not only is it terribly out of character, but it's an insultingly transparent contrivance for an eventual double-cross and comeuppance.
But this is to take "Cruel Intentions" too seriously. While it is designed, directed and photographed with an inspired amount of polish, this is ultimately a devilishly shrewd soap opera (even if it is based on a classic) and should be enjoyed as such.