Cruel Intentions


Rating 3

Directed by Roger Kumble

Written by Roger Kumble from the book Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

Starring Ryan Phillippe,
Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, Selma Blair, Joshua Jackson, Eric Mabius and Tara Reid

This is the film that good proportion of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s hardcore fanbase loves and the comparatively low box office gross can perhaps be explained in part by the fact that it was given an ‘R’ rating in America, making it largely inaccessible to a sizeable number of her fanbase at the time. Having said that, Gellar does have an erratic box office history, being best known for her lead role in the cult television series ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’, and the substantial success of the 2005 film ‘The Grudge’ was probably largely down to a fluke of timing.

‘Cruel Intentions’ is probably best known for the so-called lesbian kiss. I have always assumed this scene is included in the film primarily as a means to generate publicity and provide a bit of titillation. It was a very clever piece of tacky manipulation and it worked.

What do I think of the film? To be honest, I can never fully make my mind up about it. It’s a clever take on ‘Dangerous Liaisons’, although I’ve always found the final scene rather shockingly over-cooked. It’s perhaps a little bit too flashy and superficial for my liking, although I hardly fall within the demographic of its key target audience.

Gellar would subsequently be criticised by her detractors for her next project, ‘Harvard Man’, but ‘Cruel Intentions’ is undoubtedly a more ethically debatable film and I think the character she plays here is far more sexually provocative. Gellar’s performance certainly taps into her character’s loneliness and emptiness. There is a real sense that Kathryn feels she has been abandoned and is inwardly crying out for someone to genuinely love her. Although she is a dangerously manipulative sexual predator, she is also strangely childlike. Whether or not this is something that successfully comes across to many fans of the film is a moot point. Are they interested in Kathryn’s motivations for her actions or do they just enjoy watching her at her most maliciously scheming, something the film undoubtedly encourages?

It has, in the past, been noted that she is playing against type in ‘Cruel Intentions’, meaning that she is playing a character quite unlike Buffy. And yet there were tribulations to secure the ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ role. The producers, so it has been said, had some qualms about Joss Whedon’s plans to hire her, arguing, amongst other things, that he would be casting her ‘against type’ because of her three-year role in the daytime soap opera ‘All My Children’; the scheming and malicious Kendall Hart.

‘Cruel Intentions’ received very disparate reviews. Some critics thought it utterly reprehensible and calculatingly tacky. Terry Lawson, writing in the Detroit Free Press, described it as “vile and vacuous.” John R McEwen of The Republican makes clear that his intense dislike of Gellar in ‘Simply Irresistible’ was no one-off (and maybe suggests that his antipathy has deeper roots than a simple criticism of her acting skills).

“I thought Gellar was bad in Simply Irresistible, but watching her make pastries is infinitely more enjoyable than squirming through her attempt at evil refinement. Apart from spreading her legs and opening her blouse, her portrayal of Kathryn contains nothing that is remotely impressive… The performances by Witherspoon and Blair are not terrible, but they can’t save the film from Gellar.”

Once again, though, the respected veteran film critic Roger Ebert was much more amenable to both the film and Gellar’s performance.

“The movie is at its best in the scenes between Gellar and Phillippe, who develop a convincing emotional charge, and whose wickedness seems to work as a sexual stimulant. There’s one scene where she persuades him, emotionally and physically, to do what she wants, and we are reminded that slow, subtle eroticism is after all possible in the movies - even though recently it has been replaced by callisthenics. Gellar is effective as a bright girl who knows exactly how to use her act as a tramp, and Phillippe seems cold and detached enough to make it interesting when he finally gets skewered by the arrow of true love. The best parts of the movie allow us to see how good it might all have been with a little more care...”
Roger Ebert: Chicago Sun Times


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