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Shrewd 'Intentions'

By Desson Howe
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
Contains partial nudidty, sexual scenes, obscenity and some violence
When he sat down to write "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" in the 18th century, Choderlos de Laclos couldn't have possibly anticipated its sexual staying power. The novel has prompted updated, spirited adaptations from playwright Christopher Hampton and directors Roger Vadim, Stephen Frears and Milos Forman in the past few decades.

If de Laclos ever gets a chance to look up from that special circle of hell reserved for writers, he'd be tickled. He might even be pleased with Roger Kumble's Americanized, junior-ized "Cruel Intentions," a witty, raunchy comedy, which proves that a well-written piece of business – oozing with sex, wit and nasty intrigue – works for any generation.

Ryan Phillippe and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who play two Machiavellian step-siblings at the center of the sexual fun and games, are every bit the manipulative equals of their literary predecessors, Valmont and Madam de Merteuil. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it turns out, has fangs of her own. And Phillippe's petulant sexiness makes him a wonderfully mordant partner.

Kathryn Merteuil (Gellar), a high school senior-cum-socialite with a quinine soul, is experiencing a little inner turbulence during summer break. The man she loved has roundly rejected her for Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair), a goofy, but attractive 15-year-old virgin. Kathryn is angling for sweet revenge.

Meanwhile, her cherubic, predatory stepbrother Sebastian (Phillippe) has set lascivious sights on Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of the new headmaster at their exclusive private school. Annette has whet Sebastian's perverse appetite by declaring, in a Seventeen magazine article, her sanctimonious intention to save herself until she gets married. He intends to break her delicate hypocrisy before school even opens.

Kathryn asks Sebastian to perform a little favor: turn that virginal Cecile into an overnight tramp with a little seduction and a lot of gossip.

She also strikes a wager with her spiritual partner. If Sebastian succeeds in his quest with snooty Annette before the term begins, he may enjoy his stepsister in any manner whatsoever. But if he fails, he must relinquish his ultimate pride and joy, the 1956 Jaguar roadster that flits him from sexual conquest to conquest.

When the going gets tough, the lovers get treacherous. These are high stakes. And the siblings are something like cold-war rivals, fostering partnerships and nonaggression pacts, but waging territorial wars in distant bedrooms.

The story, which also features Louise Fletcher, Sean Patrick Thomas, Swoosie Kurtz and Christine Baranski as various pawns on the step-siblings' chessboard, will have a familiar, if updated ring to anyone who has seen a "Liaisons" movie. Sebastian discovers he has taken on more than he bargained for; and Kathryn realizes that treachery has a nasty boomerang effect.

In a world increasingly despoiled by sex all over the media, neither sexual subtlety nor explicitness seems available to us any more. But "Cruel Intentions" finds a happy middle ground that allows us to experience sex as the exciting, loaded thing it is – and have a good laugh about it. And Gellar's and Phillippe's matter-of-fact performances take the edge off the inevitable lamb-to-the-slaughter scenes. Writer/director Kumble – yet another former video store clerk for the directors' guild – has created a canny mixture of sexiness and humor for the younger set. Case in point: Kathryn (up to her customary mischief) instructs Cecille in the art of reaching "first base" with a certain tongue-to-tongue immediacy. This scene is likely to cause popcorn cartons all over America to hover uneaten for several minutes until the scene is over. And as word gets out, it's likely to draw the crowds.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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