The other day I saw a post on Instagram that made me feel super old. And, considering I turned 31 on Tuesday, that’s saying something. Turns out that Cruel Intentions turns 20 years old this week. I don’t remember how old I was but I do recall first watching this film at a sleepover. And I’m pretty certain I wasn’t a teenager yet but, with my memory for this kind of thing, I’ve no way of knowing for sure. What I do remember is that my twin sister became kind of obsessed with the band Counting Crows afterwards. For years she would play the piano part for the song ‘Colorblind’ on repeat. Our piano lives in the room directly underneath my childhood bedroom so, it’s safe to say, that I quickly became sick of that song. But. obviously, it always reminded me of this film. Cruel Intentions is one of those films you probably first watched at a young and impressionable age. As such, it has the effect of seeming really sexy and dark. The Sarah Michelle Gellar/Selma Blair kiss was much talked about at the time for being either controversial or groundbreaking. At whatever age I first watched it, I can say that it felt like a very grown-up film. So, would rewatching it 20 years after its release change things? I already know younger me was massively embarrassing so I’m expecting this to go badly.
There have been plenty of teen movies made from classic pieces of literature over the years. Clueless being the all-time number 1 that I really can’t see being knocked off the top spot. Sometimes these modernisations don’t really make sense and nearly always the teenagers watching them don’t understand the references. Certainly when I first watched Cruel Intentions I had no idea it was based on Les Liaisons dangereuses. But why would I? I was hardly reading French epistolary novels around the time of the millennium. I was definitely listening to either Will Smith or Robbie Williams’ songs about it instead. But, it’s painfully clear as I watch it again. This is as close to a copy of the original story as you can get when you set it in late 90s Manhattan. It’s weird and incredibly pretentious.
Step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian are wealthy socialites. Kathryn manages to keep her good-girl reputation whilst secretly stashing cocaine in her crucifix and plotting against everyone who wrongs her. Sebastian is simply content to sleep with as many girls as possible. Although, that is no longer proving to be a challenge for him. He has his sights set on bigger things. Namely Annette, a girl who has set out her manifesto concerning her decision to wait until she is in love. So, Kathryn and Sebastian make a bet concerning his attempts to sleep with Annette. If Sebastian wins he gets the ultimate prize: Kathryn. If she wins, Sebastian must give up his prized car. Then there’s the sexy high jinks of Kathryn’s plot to get revenge on her ex by ruining the reputation of his new love interest, Cecile. It’s all very ridiculous and hormone-fuelled.
The major problem with this film is that it thinks it’s a much better and classier film than it is. Whether it’s the connection to classic French literature or just the fact that it’s dealing with rich New Yorkers, I don’t know. But this film has a huge problem with self-awareness. It’s all so over-the-top that it’s not even funny. It’s kind of painful. Rewatching it now, I got highly uncomfortable with Joshua Jackson’s rather small appearance as a gay man. It’s such a fucking stereotype and clearly played for laughs. It’s one of the many small but painful details here.
The script is just laughably bad. The writers clearly got too bogged down in trying to emulate the source material that they forgot to try and make their characters sound like real teenagers. Add to that, the fact that everyone seems so keen to over-act the entire time and it’s difficult not to cringe for the entire run time. It would be fine if Cruel Intentions was played for laughs but it isn’t. It even has the gall to try and make some valid feminist points. But it’s done in such a cheap and titillating way that any power to these statements is almost instantly lost. This is the youngsters playing at being adults but not quite understanding how to do that. This film is embarrassing. Even more so when I remember how mature I thought it was at the time. This isn’t sexy. It’s just nasty.