Cruel Intentions review – sleazy nostalgia-fest

By Alix Turner
Published: July 20, 2020 (Last updated: February 11, 2024)
Cruel Intentions review - sleazy nostalgia-fest


A black comedy of manners (or romantic comedy/drama) relocated from 1780s France to 1990s USA, directed by Roger Kumble.

Cruel Intentions is a story of betrayal, blackmail, sexual manipulation, and reluctant romance among the popular set at an exclusive New York prep school. First released in 1999, it presented the dream style of that time, just as Heathers did ten years earlier; and similarly starred some rising and just-risen stars.

The scenario is this: popular and well respected Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) bets her stepbrother Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) that he cannot get chaste Annette (Reese Witherspoon) – daughter of the new headmaster – into bed before the start of their final year in school. At the same time, Kathryn sets out to corrupt naïve Cecille (Selma Blair), as revenge on her ex-boyfriend for dumping Kathryn in Cecille’s favor. Some of this succeeds, some backfires, and some snowballs badly…

Geller is usually cast as the good girl, and she had not long been established as Buffy the Vampire Slayer when Cruel Intentions came out and gave her a good opportunity to play something different (though it isn’t a terribly demanding role). Philippe’s and Witherspoon’s roles are the ones that truly develop in the film and they both showed just as much breadth as the script required. Other familiar faces included Louise Fletcher, Joshua Jackson, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Swoosie Kurtz.

The script – though lacking in depth – is very cleverly written. See, Cruel Intentions is the 1999 adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses, the 1782 novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Like the original book, it is steamy and sleazy; but unlike said book, it takes place amongst wealthy New York teenagers, rather than French aristocracy. The book was huge, initially published in four volumes in the form of letters; and the film squeezes as much of the book’s zig-zagging drama as possible into 97 minutes; hence the – understandable – lack of depth. Granted, there have been other film adaptations, but they have all been longer, and more serious period affairs. This adaptation, in my opinion, was both cleverly done and bold: does a scandalous tale of corruption in pre-Revolution nobility fit neatly in twentieth-century high school? I declare it does: Cruel Intentions serves as a warning to beware of the pretty and popular set, while at the same time giving us a lifestyle to daydream about. Those grapes may look delicious, but they don’t taste any good.

Neal H. Moritz produced Cruel Intentions, and Roger Kumble wrote and directed it. Moritz is known largely for action films; and Kumble for, well this (and its follow-up The Sweetest Thing). Both have moved more into glossy TV shows, and their respective styles worked great in combination here. The style of Cruel Intentions – apart from being very clearly glamorous – seems to be up for debate: some have called it a romantic comedy, others an erotic thriller. It’s not terribly erotic (more suggestive, to be honest), nor very funny (though Blair’s Cecille is kind of ridiculous). It manages to blend a bit of each of these genres very entertainingly, almost like a condensed soap opera. It’s fun escapism: we can watch these self-centered step-siblings play tricks we would never dream of, and take guesses as to who will fall and how.

As well as the cast, the music also gave a cultural snapshot of the late 1990s, and the film was almost full of it: tracks by Placebo, The Verve, Blur, and Fatboy Slim, for example, filled a soundtrack which was almost as popular as the film when first released. The pop music firmly set the time, and the classical music – along with Edward Shearmur’s score – was used beautifully to adjust the tone as needed.

So watch Cruel Intentions for the wit, for nostalgia, for the fabulous couture, for the beautiful people or the lavish production. Watch it and forget 2020 for a while.

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