By T. Mack
Since we got such a cool Cruel Intentions reunion last week, I thought it might be appropriate to talk a bit about what made the movie so great in the first place. The year was 1999. Cruel Intentions came to theaters, wrapped itself around our hearts and never truly let go. The movie was a modern remake of the 1988 film, Dangerous Liasons, which was an adaptation of the book Les Liaisons dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, published in 1792. The movie starred a beautiful cast of popular young stars and the entire 97 minutes of the film was filled with sex, drugs, lies and love. There was nothing about this film for my 18-year-old, high-school-senior self to dislike. The script was smart. The acting was amazing. The characters were merciless. And the soundtrack was epic. I loved the movie when it came out. I love it still. Here are my top 10 reasons why:
1. SEXIt may be a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Sex sells! This movie is no exception. The entire premise of the film is based on teenagers manipulating, blackmailing, betraying, tempting and torturing each other with sex. Sex is at the heart of the movie and drives the plot and the characters forward. It’s like that train wreck everyone talks about. It’s horrible to see, but you simply can’t look away. There are two especially great things about sex in this film, though: 1) The sex is fun… for the most part. All the characters genuinely seem to be enjoying themselves when they have it. And it’s enjoyable to watch the power play that happens when people are refraining from having it; 2) It’s wonderful to to watch how sex slowly loses its power over the course of the movie. At some point, the characters (most of them, anyway) begin to evolve and consider the power love has over them more than the power that sex gives them over others. It’s a fascinating transformation to see and in the end, it makes all the difference for everyone’s outcome.
2. EXPERIENCE -VS- INNOCENCETwo characters in this film, Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Valmont (Ryan Phillipe), are highly experienced in the arts of debauchery. A day filled with sex, drugs, lies and mind games is just another Tuesday for these two. In fact, they are so used to their own excess that they have become bored with their normal routines, which would be considered shocking to any relatively normal person. The depth of their experience and jadedness is counterbalanced by the innocence of Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon) and Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair). These two are both virginal as well as gullible and trusting. They believe the things Sebastian and Kathryn say to them, despite there being a complete lack of sincerity. They trust their new friends because they don’t yet have a reason not to and it doesn’t occur to them that these people may have anything less than the best of intentions towards them. The contrast is intriguing and it is fascinating to see things turn on their heads when the situations get away from the more experienced characters, who find themselves dealing with things they’ve never experienced before… things the innocent characters understand.
3. MANIPULATIONManipulation is a horrible thing. However, it can be incredibly entertaining to watch in movies. Cruel Intentions is chock full of the stuff. From the very beginning, Kathryn and Sebastian have a relationship based on manipulating each other and joining together to manipulate others. It is their entertainment and sport. It’s how they compete with each other and pass their time. The only thing better than watching their manipulation is seeing how it all turns around on them eventually.
4. MUSICThe soundtrack for this film peaked at number 60 on the Billboard Top 100. However, the songs it contained became part of the soundtrack of a generation. Colorblind by Counting Crows and Bitter Sweet Symphony by Verve still resonate with those who were in their teens during this time. To this day I cannot, can NOT turn the car radio off and get out of a vehicle while one of these songs is playing. It’s useless to try to resist the urge to close my eyes, throw my head back and belt along with these ballads. Behind my eyelids, I see a young Ryan Phillipe as Sebastian, driving his shiny, black Jaguar Roadster down the road. The music takes me back there with him and I feel all warm inside. Great music can do that. It has the power to transform our mood and transport us to another place and time. The music in this film is truly great.
5. Sarah Michelle Gellar as Kathryn MerteuilWhen Cruel Intentions came out, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was in its third season. Buffy-mania and love for Gellar were part of the current culture. So just by being Sarah Michelle Gellar, she caused excitement about her role and the film. She drew in teenagers, who were the film’s target demographic. But then the movie began and the character of Kathryn was enrapturing. She was conniving, manipulative, petty and spiteful, but she wrapped it all in a sexy seductiveness that captured everyone’s attention and imagination. Boys and girls alike found a certain revolting appeal in Kathryn and it was difficult to take our eyes off her when she was on screen. The actress and character helped the movie hook viewers and keep them reeled in from the very beginning until the bitter sweet end.
Ryan Phillippe has always been rather pleasant to look at. With blonde curls, full, pouty lips and boyish good looks, he seems to have missed his calling by not being in a boy band. Although, he is a pretty good actor, so maybe not. In this film, he slips perfectly into the role of Sebastian, who is equal parts conniving and charming. Unlike Gellar’s Kathryn, Sebastian is actually likeable. Even though he’s being a jerk most of the time, there seems to be something redeemable hiding deep down and he gets the audience to root for him. They want him to be better. They hope he will be. As transformation tries to take shape, it’s wonderful to watch Sebastian struggle with his dual sides, take steps forward, stumble, back-track and try all over again. In the end, one can’t help but be invested in his fate, feel the pain of his **spoiler** and embrace the joy of his victory.
7. Reese Witherspoon as Annette HargroveAh, the innocence of youth. The passion of first love. The sting of betrayal. The tenderness of forgiveness. Witherspoon plays Annette with a sweetness that captures the viewer in much the same way it captures a certain young man in the film. Those watching want to see her protected, but also want to see her happy. The two concepts are contradictory notions at certain points in this film. So while they’re rooting for her, they’re not certain what to hope for on her behalf.
8. Selma Blair as Cecile CaldwellWhile Annette’s innocence is born of a conviction to maintain her standards, Cecile’s is more like naivety and a fair bit of stupidity. Cecile is fun to watch because she is so ridiculous and gullible. She thinks very little besides to muddle blandly over what is told to her. And she is quick to follow others’ lead to the point of changing her personality almost entirely in a very short time. Cecile is an idiot. However, she’s also a victim. It’s simultaneously sad to see her taken advantage of but funny to watch it happen. I think credit for the existence of this fine line must go to Blair, who plays all the elements of the character’s personality perfectly. She is ditsy, energetic and playful. At the same time she is vulnerable. Eventually, she is even seductive in her own way. Blair blends all of this together in a fun way that lets people laugh at the character while feeling sorry for her. And somehow, they manage not to feel too bad about it.
9. Joshua Jackson as Blaine TuttleMy love for Joshua Jackson begins with Pacey and goes all the way through to Peter. (If anyone reading this doesn’t know what that means, Google both characters immediately after finishing this article and begin binge-watching right after that.) The character of Blaine is not a large part of this film, but he is a fun part. Essentially, he’s the gay version of Sebastian. He’s cute, funny and whorish, with very little real regard for the people with whom he shares his bed and body. (Dare I say it?) His character adds flair to the film. (I did it.) He’s another reason the movie makes people smile and it’s always nice to enjoy the underlying humor Joshua Jackson brings to nearly every role he plays. (Seriously, whoever doesn’t know who Pacey and Peter are need to fix that situation, like now).
10. The Kiss
When Cruel Intentions came to theaters, there was much in the movie to scandalize and entice. In a film filled with sex, drugs and lies, what moment could stand out as a highlight above all the others? The kiss, of course! While it seems weird to say that in a movie full of kissing, anyone who’s seen the movie knows immediately which kiss this is. It’s not just a kiss. It’s the kiss. Back in 1999, LGBTQ wasn’t mainstream. So it was a big deal at the time to have same-sex characters in a movie lock lips. But this wasn’t just that. Gellar’s Kathryn and Blair’s Cecile didn’t simply peck at each other’s lips in this film. The camera got close and showed detail as the two women explored each others mouths with their tongues. And after it was over, a single strand of glossy saliva stretched the distance between them and kept them connected even longer. It was a kiss that would have been impressive between a man and woman. The fact that it was between two women ignited something in the culture. I would argue that the ripples of that kiss are still being felt in media today as LGBTQ characters and pairings continue to become less controversial and more common, to the point of often being expected. The kiss became infamous and actually won the MTV Movie Award for Best Kiss that year.