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Sadism for Juniors

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 1999

  Movie Critic

'Cruel Intentions'
Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe's liaison is dangerous, indeed. (Columbia TriStar)

Roger Kumble
Sarah Michelle Gellar;
Ryan Phillippe;
Reese Witherspoon;
Selma Blair;
Christine Baranski;
Tara Reid;
Swoozie Kurtz
Running Time:
1 hour, 51 minutes
Extreme sexual behavior, intrigue and emotional (and some physical) violence
If ever there were a colder, more astringent martini of pure malice than the perdurable "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" I don't know what it could be. In a variety of retellings – most recently Stephen Frears's "Dangerous Liaisons" and Milos Forman's "Valmont" – this 18th-century epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos De Laclos gaily shocks the choir, affronts the vicar and titillates all hedonists too lazy to awake on Sunday morn.

In the drop-dead-hip "Cruel Intentions," coolly directed by Roger Kumble, the story has been moved to the soigne world of elite Manhattan private schools, where it plays as if it were to the manor – and the manner – born. Think of it as Whit Stillman's innocent "Metropolitan" as reinvented by a pervert with a bad attitude, to say nothing of heartburn. In fact, it's a movie so blurry with sexual vibration, it would be illegal in the state of Georgia.

The roles of Valmont and Merteuil – the Monsieur and Madame Spider of Laclos's sticky web of plot – were imprinted into memory for all time by John Malkovich and Glenn Close in Frears's brilliant version. But playing the junior-set arachnids named Sebastian Valmont and Kathryn Merteuil, Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar have a nasty good time, though neither can match the sublime narcissistic egotism of the two grown-ups.

Phillippe was at a loss in "54," in which he played a pretty blond boy from Jersey sucked up by disco madness. He has much better luck here: He has the simpering good looks and wasted, undeveloped body of a high-upper lout, a petty seducer and betrayer who by 17 has tasted and grown weary of all the flavors of flesh. This happens to be a role that Leonardo DiCaprio, with that same pasty spindly baby body wanly supporting a gigantic head of epicene beauty, was born to play; but Phillippe affects a soul-deep nonchalance and has the same skinny display of bones and skin. He looks good in those really ugly $2,000 suits that rich people with the metabolisms of hummingbirds all wear.

As for Gellar, hello, hello, hello. Two weeks ago in a flaccid remake of "Like Water for Chocolate" called "I, the Insipid" – no, no, called (a slight pause while Hunter looks it up) "Simply Irresistible," that Buffy gal hardly registered. She was so nicey-nice she made you want to throwy-up. Here, she's a piece of delicious chocolate evil, a sinister heart lurking under the cheerful all-American guise as the Most Popular Student Body President Ever! The crucifix she wears close to her heart contains 100 percent pure Colombian white girl. But hers also is Laclos' conceit (and Close's and Annette Bening's in "Valmont"), which makes her not merely dangerous but also interesting: In a world ruled by stupid men, a smart woman plays the game of sex because it's the only table they'll let her sit at, and they have no right to be surprised, therefore, when she wins.

The movie turns on a blasphemously cruel wager. Now brother and sister (by marriage of absentee parents), Sebastian and Kathryn make an amusing bet to pass the hours as the summer before senior year drones onward in empty Manhattan and on the great estates of Long Island. Kathryn bets Sebastian he cannot score with the school's new girl, a beauty from Kansas who is the new headmaster's daughter and, more deliciously, has just written a piece for Seventeen magazine on why she'll keep her virginity intact until marriage. Such goodness cannot go unpunished. The stakes of the bet are: his vintage hunter-green MG vs. her . . . well, her, if you catch my drift.

But both Sebastian and Kathryn are geopolitical thinkers who have ambitions beyond the nationhoods of their own hearts. Like Metternichs or Kissingers, they design each gambit to redound into other gambits, and each has several simultaneous goals beyond the mere wager, such as, for both of them, the punishment of previous offenders, the payback of affront, the destruction of sanctimony, the complete obliteration of hypocrisy. In fact, the movie takes from Laclos an image of the world as conspiratorial mechanism. Beyond each plot there looms a larger plot, and within each plot there lurks a smaller plot. It's 18th-century rationalism carried to its most insane extension, a clockwork of malice and deceit grinding ever on, fueled by mendacity and narcissism.

Sebastian mounts a brilliant if cynical campaign – oh, you know, manipulation, extortion, deceit, expensive gifts and fake tears – to achieve his goal. Alas, as he nears it, and can see lovely, pious Annette (Reese Witherspoon) wavering, he falls in love with her; thus is the cynic slain by the kryptonite of love.

But he soldiers on bravely, and in a scene that echoes the clammiest in film (when Malkovich dumped Michelle Pfeiffer), he destroys her and goes to claim his prize. Alas, by this time, Kathryn, offended by the intensity of his ardor, denies him. This means war.

The two are equally matched and the stakes are so small that the campaigns are incredibly bitter. They scheme, they contrive, they lie, they lay waste all about them, until one is dead and the other the winner of a victory that lasts but seconds. Those darn kids!

But what's both depressing and impressive about "Cruel Intentions" is the profound misanthropy of its meaning. It doesn't argue that man is not soul but merely fleshly matter, but something far worse: that man doesn't matter, nor does woman, nor does love, loyalty or honor. What matters alone is power. And since they lack the power to rule (reserved to kings), the only power accessible to players of the game is the power to hurt. The original was about social manipulation as blood sport. Amazing how easily it transports, themes intact, to our blighted decade, and to our children.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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