Perhaps no crimes have been committed. No murders, no heists, at least of a material kind. But what about intentional humiliation? Deceit for sexual seduction? Something more than mischievousness, something just short of emotional torture?
Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written in the late 1700s by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the book was mined for the cinema by the French, English, American, Korean and, most recently, the Chinese. There are the two available English language versions — Dangerous Liaisons and Cruel Intentions. One is critically acclaimed. The other has spawned nasty little sequels. And it’s probably important to understand that while the plots of these two are much the same, there couldn’t be a greater difference in style and feeling.
Similar to the initial impression of Wild Things, reviewed last week, Cruel Intentions begins as a dark teen comedy. Unlike Wild Things, Cruel Intentions never transcends its first impression. The style may have been intentional, though. It worked for its target market. Ryan Phillippe, looking uncannily like Justin Bieber in this 1999 film about rich, spoiled, emotionally bullying teens, is joined by Reese Witherspoon and Sarah Michelle Gellar. Phillippe and Gellar are the foxes in the henhouse of innocence. (The “henhouse of innocence? Sorry I lost my mind there for a moment.) And when the nasty deeds are done, they must face each other. Whatever I might say about its depth or lack of it, the film was entertaining and extraordinarily successful. Wikipedia says that Cruel Intentions 4 will be released in 2014.
And now for something completely the same only very, very different. Dangerous Liaisons is essentially the same plot in the hands of masters and set in the luscious excesses of 18th century France. Christopher Hampton adapted the screenplay from his play and from the book. And Stephen Frears directed this true-to-the-period piece released in 1988. The cast is extraordinary, featuring Glenn Close and John Malkovich as competing, evil manipulators. Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman are not only beautiful, but also excellent in their roles. A very young Keanu Reeves has a minor role. Much like Cruel Intentions, there is plenty of sex. But unlike the young American version, the wit is much more biting in France. The endings of both might be considered darkly comedic or humorously tragic.
It almost has to be champagne for the evening in honor of the book that inspired all these films and certainly in the meanness that stems from the boredom of being part of the “idle” rich. Join in for a few hours. Spoil yourself. Indulge.