The year was 1999. The music was alternative, spaghetti straps were all the rage, and teens were spending their hard-earned money from mall jobs on movies. Ever since John Hughes introduced true teen drama (and comedy) to theaters in the 80’s, there was room for edgier content as we approached the millennium. Enter Cruel Intentions.
Now released in theaters for one week only, the film brings this complex story of teens behaving badly to a new generation.
Ah, But The Plot Thickens
Cruel Intentions is a drama about NYC teen step-brother/step-sister duo with no parental supervision, Kathryn and Sebastian. The two make a bet over whether or not Sebastian, played by Ryan Phillippe, could get declared virgin, Annette (Reese Witherspoon) to sleep with him before school starts. All the while, Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar) enlists Sebastian’s help in destroying the reputation of goody-two-shoes Cecile (Selma Blair) who is dating Kathryn’s ex, but who is really in love with her “lower-class” music teacher.
At its core, this film is a retelling of the French, Dangerous Liaisons. The film mirrors the bulk of the original story with an ultra-modern twist. Cruel Intentions became an instant hit. The cast were all known and all popular, with the whole cast still household names today. The film’s edgy nature and New York setting makes it starkly contrasting from the more suburban teen flicks of the 80’s. Even other 90’s films, like Clueless, released just 5 years earlier still had an innocence to sell. Cruel Intentions left little room for innocence plotting, pulling and manipulating it out any character.
20 Years Later
Though it is still perceived as a hit and teen classic, the film would look very different if brought up to modern day. The film was created at the precipice of the technological age we are living in now. There are a few cell phones, a lot of landlines, and e-mails for only for geeks. Moreover, there is no social media. Welcome to the 90’s. Any teen drama now would need to include to social media and an online life to seem relatable at all. Yet the void of these actually gives the film more timelessness.
The story centers on the idea of perceptions and reputations. Thusly, Kathryn and Sebastian’s charted course to complete their tasks includes lots letter writing, secret midday meet-ups, and untraceable middle-of-the-night hook-ups. If social media modernized this film, the story would lose its old-world charm that links it to the original story. Reputations can be built or destroyed with just as many lies today, but now are completed behind a keyboard instead of wheeling and dealing in the real world. Further, Sebastian carefully logs all secrets in his journal that he keeps with him at all times. He hasn’t established a blog or anonymous website for stories of Manhattan’s elite – that will be done by Gossip Girl.
Style and Sound
The traditionalism set forth by the setting is what makes this film feel so naughty. Everyone should be on their best behavior in the nicest homes in the fanciest city, but they are not. Kathryn and Sebastian’s apartment is not 90’s, but French-inspired and ornate. Sebastian’s Aunt Helen’s home where he meets Annette is a traditional East Coast estate. Cecile’s family owns the most modern home, though they are the least progressive. The whole design leads to a sophistication absent from more suburban set teen films, so Cruel Intentions’ misguided teens seem more worldly and mature, despite their notorious behavior.
Twenty years later, the clothes may not all be on trend, but none were too trendy. Most notably, Kathryn wore mostly black and Annette wore mostly white contrasting these characters due to their opposing values. Cecile is often in red as she attempts to become more fiery. While Sebastian wears the signature long 90’s coat that fits his dark nature. But, none dress like casual teens. All seem to be aiming to showcase a specific part of their personality. The New York backdrop allows them not to look out of place in their adult world. The wardrobe selection also helps to keep this story classic and timeless; and again reconnecting to its original iteration.
The soundtrack has also become iconic and the most 90’s part of the whole film. The opening of the film sets the pop/rock tone with Placebo’s “Every You and Every Me” and the moody “Colorblind” by Counting Crows fits seamlessly into Annette and Sebastian’s troubled romance. The soundtrack includes the film’s final song, “Bittersweet Symphony” by The Verve, which became a massive hit. Riverdale recently covered this song in homage to this film.
Where are we now?
The film does hold-up. It is still very fun to watch. This film’s strong wit and winking humor, keeps it light as everything builds and then falls apart.
Although the story focuses on destroying innocent lives, all get what’s coming to them in the end. Karma proves to be the biggest bitch in the movie. The film is still a classic because it didn’t work too hard to be about “modern-day” but speak more to the complexities and privileges of the upper-(East-Side) class. Many of those privileges of wealth, power, and greed haven’t changed.
Reputation rules us all now more then ever as lifetime’s of work can destroyed in a single tweet. The dark nature of Cruel Intentions and it’s parent Les Liaisons Dangereuses showcases how even in a time before Twitter it doesn’t take much to tip over a reputation built on lies. While Twitter can tear something apart, a lot of fallacies and misrepresentations shared on Instagram build a more favorable reputation based on crafted perceptions. It seems fitting that in today’s culture we revisit this film that doesn’t favor those who trade in fake reputations, but show how easy it is to watch them fall when faced with truth and consequences.
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