My favourite film aged 12: Cruel Intentions

This stylish 1999 take on the aristocratic sexual scheming of Les Liaisons Dangereuses remains just as seductive as when I first saw it

I don’t know what it says about me that my favourite film aged 12 is my favourite film aged 30. It could mean that I am enduringly loyal, knew my mind at a young age, and had mature tastes. Or it could be that I haven’t developed at all as an individual and am stubborn as a wine stain.

My favourite film is Cruel Intentions. Nowadays it sits in my affections alongside more serious and arty fair, as well as classics: Three Colours Blue, Some Like It Hot, Persona, The Silence of the Lambs etc. Back then, in the late 90s, its competitors were The Craft (1996), Anaconda (1997), Scream (1996),Clueless (1995). All of these I was introduced to via Blockbuster VHS rental.

For those of you unfamiliar, Cruel Intentions is a 1999-modern take on Stephen Frears’ Dangerous Liaisons (1988), itself an adaptation of Christopher Hampton’s 1985 play, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, itself an adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 1782 epistolary novel. The novel tells the tale of the sexual scheming of the aristocratic Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont, narcissistic ex-lovers who get their kicks – and their rocks off – by manipulatively seducing paramours unsuspecting of their status as mere pawns in Merteuil’s and Valmont’s cruel, competitive game of conquests.

Valmont, however, is redeemed by his eventual love for Madame de Tourvel, originally the subject of a bet with Merteuil. All this is set against the decadence of the ancien régime, in the decade leading up to the 1789 French Revolution. Though I imagine you had already grasped this was in France.

Of course, I wasn’t aware of all this aged 12, though pretentiously and precociously I did read Laclos’ book aged about 15. In Cruel Intentions, the re-imagined “Kathyrn” Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and “Sebastian” Valmont (Ryan Phillippe) are private-high-school step-siblings, enjoying their summer holidays in their Upper East Side pad, their rich and negligent parents nowhere to be seen. Their main hobby aside from shopping, horse-riding and driving around in vintage cars? Shagging, of course. Meanwhile, the Tourvel character becomes the new girl at school, “Annette” (Reese Witherspoon). As with the book, there is an additional subplot; a true cat’s cradle of heartstrings.

Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathyrn Merteuil
Unrecognisably brunette … Gellar as Kathyrn Merteuil. Photograph: Colombia Tristar

What did I love about Cruel Intentions then, and what do I love about it now? Some things sit in the centre of the Venn diagram, others are split with time. Sebastian’s initial cruelty is countered with incredible charm, the cheek of his smile and confident, caustic wit. As a young pretender, I was insatiably drawn to his pithy one-liners, brilliantly scripted by Roger Kumble, who also directed – and whose entire career has been defined by this film.

I thought (and perhaps still think) there is no more suave answer to the question, “What are you doing tomorrow?” than “I’m going out with you.” There is the scene where Sebastian remotely blares classical music into Annette’s room – and only her room – when they are staying in the same house. Then switches the music to the Cardigans’ Lovefool when she comes to remonstrate with him. The way he teases her when asking her to join him for a swim, and she, also capable of smarts, replies: “I suppose your proposal was only mildly insulting, so I’ll consider it.”

Did I mirror Sebastian’s positive characteristics (even if he often employed them insincerely)? Did I start louchely standing with my hands in my pockets the exact way he did and begin to keep a leather-bound journal? Was I hornily rewatching the film to satisfy my burgeoning, or, more accurately, burgeoned, interest in all things sexual? Yes to all. Aged 12, I simultaneously wanted to be Sebastian and to be with Phillippe. I was not happy that he ended up marrying Witherspoon in real life.

In a many ways, the film was progressive. It included a lingering woman-on-woman snog (which won the MTV movie award for best kiss) – and this only two years after Ellen DeGeneres came out, with her show cancelled after a backlash. Sebastian’s best friend (played by yet another 90s staple, Joshua Jackson) was gay, without comment. I was keen, too, on the unabashedly feminist (though I wouldn’t have used the f-word then) attitude of Kathyrn: “God forbid, I exude confidence and enjoy sex”; railing against the confines of womanhood and gender double standards. (“Do you think I relish the fact I have to act like Mary Sunshine 24/7 so I can be considered a lady?”) Racism was addressed, too: a character played by Sean Patrick Thomas being told he’d been helped “off the streets”. “Off the streets? I live at 59th and Park.”

The soundtrack: still one of the best. Mostly a mix of mainstream, cool (Blur, Fatboy Slim, Placebo etc) and bands I had never heard of before, and have never heard of since. Listening to Bitter Sweet Symphony by the Verve, which plays during the end scene, still makes me cry and swoon moodily as it did then. And that end scene retains all of its stirring, triumphant power.

I also was not (and am not) immune to the film’s aesthetic luxuries: the sweeping shots of the New York skyline; the wide angles of a country house in the Hamptons, the costume design of Kathryn’s flattering couture dresses and Sebastian’s old-school tennis whites.

Triumphant power … the end scene to the Verve’s Bitter Sweet Symphony

There has been some present-day criticism that Sebastian more or less tricks one of his conquests into oral sex (“He took down my pants and he started writing the alphabet but he was writing it with his tongue”). But this is the exact kind of behaviour implicit to his character, long before the transitional moment when Annette says to him, “I’m impressed”, and he replies, “Well, I’m in love”, which somehow manages to make riding an escalator romantic.

The only thing that could ever taint the film would be watching the roundly panned sequels and prequels with none of the original cast members, which is why I pretend they do not exist. A cancelled television series; a second and third film, both straight-to-video. I ignore these because though Laclos’ cautionary tale of morality is timeless; that, to this day, it teaches us things about the complexity and contradictions of people, I do not want Kumble’s translation diluted.

The brilliant screenplay, which gave the story a sassier, more optimistic ending than the book. The genius of the new setting. The perfect casting (Phillippe – much more charismatic than the reptilian John Malkovich in Dangerous Liaisons; Alan Rickman, Colin Firth and Dominic West have all had a bash on stage or screen, too); Gellar, famously blond in her mainstream television role as Buffy Summers, going unrecognisably brunette; Witherspoon showing her range by playing the opposite of Tracy Flick in Election; support from Selma Blair and others; Christine Baranski!). Fortunately, a television reboot mooted in 2016 only made it as far as an unaired pilot.

A 2015 musical, however, with Kumble on board, proved to be a critical smash. The New York Times noted how much fans loved the nostalgia of being taken back to Kumble’s vision. I am far from the only appreciator of the masterpiece, then. Though Cruel Intentions opened to mixed reviews, it grossed seven times its budget, and sent its stars on their way to career success and celebrity. As the reception to the musical attests, it maintains a cult following: quoted, gif-ed, streamed. I’m still impressed, still in love.


Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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