More than most, this film was such a creature of pop culture that, 14 years after the fact, there is no way I can appreciate the impact it had when first released.
Looking back, I just see established actors in a mediocre comedy (?) rather than rising stars making some of their first marks on our entertainment consciences. Darn it, maybe I should have watched Dangerous Liaisons, even Valmont, first or, heaven forbid, read Les Liaisons Dangereuses to fully appreciate this contemporary take on the french classic, but I didn't, so my less informed impression of the movie is that it's just an uninspired cross between Something About Mary and a coed Heathers.
I understand that the movie's graphic dialogue was quite shocking for its time, but 14 years after the fact, it doesn't even cause me to raise an eyebrow. I've heard more lurid language on the ABC Family channel.
We meet Sebastian Valmont at his therapy session. We don't know what he's being counseled for. Sex addiction? He's been expelled from school, but his actual offenses are not specified. Whatever his mental malady, while assuring her that he's improved, he's making a play for his self-absorbed doctor, who brushes him off for a book tour. However, the joke's on her as, once he leaves, she learns that he's seduced her scholarly daughter and posted nude pictures of her on the internet. Hey! I didn't realize people even did that back in 1999. We were more evolved than I thought.
Heedless of social mores, human feelings or, parking regulations he returns home infuriating countless people on the way. Back at their high rise apartment, his stepsister Kathryn Merteuil is waiting. As a Buffy fan, I'm impressed with Sarah Michelle Gellar's refined appearance and frosty elegance and her sex appeal is certainly not lost on me, but no part of her portrayal here blows me away. I'm rather perplexed as to why this role has become so infamous over time. Sure, Kathryn is evil, but it's no surprise that Gellar can be. Kathryn can turn a nice phrase of dialogue. Duh! Gellar was doing that back when she was still a kid on All My Children. A bigger problem is, I have the benefit of 145 hours of Buffy, while this movie was made back when the show had only been on the air for 2 years. I suppose that, as Kathryn, Gellar exhibits a sophistocated range that Buffy Summers, who in Buffy's second season, still snuck out of her bedroom to avoid her mother's curfew, had yet to reveal. Original movie viewers had not yet seen Buffy and Spike having public sex all over Sunnydale. Even with that in mind, while Kathryn often charms, I'm underwhelmed by the film's overall use of Gellar. Kathryn's a seductress and schemer, but she's no slayer.
Kathryn, a seemingly model college student and mentor to underclassmen, was dumped by her last conquest for, Cecile, an insipid teen. She wants revenge: against Cecile. This confuses me because (1) Cecile is not still dating the boy and he won't be effected by her ruin, (2) Cecile is oblivious to the fact that Kathryn was jilted and doesn't even realize they dated the same fellow, and (3) Cecile's honor would seem harder to preserve than to lose. When we meet her, she is sitting open-legged in Kathryn's living room, gawking at Sebastian. The fact that her virginity remains intact is due to stupidity, rather than intent. If bringing Cecile down is Kathryn's idea of plotting, I must question her true deviance.
Sebastian seems to feel the same. When Kathryn tries to enlist his aid against Cecile, he declines, claiming that such a conquest would be too easy for a man of his expertise. Instead, he wants to debauch Annette Hargrove, the new college dean's virtuous daughter. She's taken a vow of abstinence and Sebastian intends to break it. Kathryn bets he'll fail. The stakes? If she wins, she gets his expensive 1956 car. If he wins, he gets Kathryn. It seems he's lusted after her since her mother married his father. He's the only woman he can't have, not unless he plays his cards right. Sebastian seems hesitant -- guess he really likes his car. But Kathryn closes the deal by promising, "I'll let you put it anywhere," a temptation even blase Sebastian can't resist. It's a deal.
He embarks on the plan to bed Kathryn who is a guest at his wealthy aunt's home. But his reputation precedes him and Annette easily defends against his false flattery. In fact, she seems to be playing a game of her own. Sebastian plays loud music to lure Annette to the the indoor swimming pool where Sebastian is lulling about in a wheel chair (for reasons unknown and unquestioned). They engage in laps and Annette does not seem immune to his flirtations, but when he moves in for a kiss she coolly pulls away and wonders just how stupid he thinks she is. He's the one left stunned.
He wonders whose alerted her to his untrustworthiness and jumps to the broad conclusion that it must be Greg, a student he knows who hails from Kansas, like Annette does. I know it's a small world, but as far as deductive reasoning goes, that seems to be straining things a bit . . . Certain that he's right, Sebastian has Blaine, a gay friend, seduce Greg, comes in and takes pictures when they're in flagrante delicto and blackmails Greg. Greg insists that he never spoke to Annette about Sebastian. Threatening to expose his bisexuality, Sebastian makes Greg find out who did. This extortion plot is stupid on so many levels. First, why does Blaine do Sebastian's bidding so easily? Sebastian pays him, but judging from his surroundings, Blaine doesn't seem to need the money that badly. If he did, why not just blackmail Greg himself and be paid by him, rather than working on Sebastian's behalf? He and Sebastian seem to be occasional companions in ennui, rather than BFFs. So, Blaine didn't act out of loyalty or friendship. Once the set up is complete, it becomes clear that Blaine never thought Greg was the guilty party anyway. So, what was his motive? He said that Greg was good in bed, why gratuitously ruin the relationship, however casual it was?
Secondly, why does it matter who is badmouthing Sebastian to Annette? All Sebastian has to do is work to change her mind or to show her that he's changed -- which is what he ultimately does. Therefore, her initial impression of him is irrelevant, since it's not a static one. In short, the entire threat to expose Greg's homosexuality is pointless and I'm confused as to why it's in the script. This is one of the subplots that was probably better illuminated in the novel or play.
Seeking Annette's confidence, Blaine discovers that the person who actually warned Annette about Sebastian was Cecile's mother, Bunny Caldwell. He passes this tidbit along. Although the news annoys Sebastian, he doesn't seem to act on it. He never says, "I'll sleep with Cecile to get back at Bunny" and there would have been no point in doing so because, again, Cecile was not an easy conquest. She was just easy, period. Knowing him, I think it would have been more interesting if he'd slept with Bunny, as his form of revenge. Yet, revenge doesn't seem to be his purpose. He ends up sleeping with Cecile seemingly for no other reason than that Kathryn repears her earlier request that he do so. This time, he says yes.
Not to be outdone by Sebastian's pointless plot pranks, Kathryn has been indulging in her own. She takes Cecile out, gets her tipsy and french kisses her, for no discernible reason. Sure, the move titilates the audience. Sarah and Selma created a scene that's still talked about today, but to what end? She tells Sebastian she needs him to whet Cecile's burgeoning sexual appetite, so maybe that's what she was doing as well. But there's no need. The overheated Cecile does upside down leg splits right under her male music teacher's nose. Literally. Her sexual appetite needs no whetting or wetting. It's raring to go, already. Furthermore, if Kathryn wants to subject Cecile to social ruin, why involve Sebastian at all. Simply pushing Cecile into the arms of her black music teacher, Ronald, is enough to scandalize Bunny Caldwell and her prejudiced social circle. Upon learning that they are romantically inclined, Bunny exclaims, "but he's so black!" and fires him on the spot. I would think that all Kathryn would have to do was spread the word about Ronald and Cecile on campus and the girl would be shunned by the entire blue-blooded college.
Of course, Kathryn doesn't like to get her hands dirty. She's revered by Bunny Caldwell and their peers. Unlike Sebastian, she's not a social outcast. She says she can't afford to be, because of her sex. That's why she keeps her cocaine concealed in the crucifix around her neck and, fingering it meaningfully, lets everyone know she takes comfort in God in times of stress. For Sebastian tarnishing his image, somehow enhances it. But a woman who sins is judged harshly and permanently. Kathryn takes pains to keep her handiwork hidden, but that only means she could have Sebastian blab the word about Ronald and Cecile rather than doing it herself.
True, Sebastian's callous handling of Cecile contrasts with his sincere feelings for Annette, helping to express the character's gradual metamorphosis. The problem is that Cecile is such a pratfalling caricature that you can't take her scenes seriously. She's not innocent, sympathetic or sensient. She can't add structure or context to any other part of the story.
Consequently, there's no logical reason for Sebastian to sleep with Cecile, but he does, pushing the awkward girl out of bed immediately afterwards. Selma Blair is quite funny in the role of slapstick dunce, but she's involved in comedy so over-the-top that it seems at odds with everyone else's performance. None of the other characters are walking into doors with tongue-lagging and eyes spinning stupidly.
While making time with Cecile, Sebastian is also making inroads on his bet. He's winning over Annette who sees cracks in his bad boy facade. He admits to Kathryn that Annette is also getting to him. Her wants to scoff at her wholesome allure, but can't quite do it. Making kooky faces he can't resist, she melts his sneers into smiles. In turn, she's no longer playing nonchalant herself. Whatever guard she put up has long fled. Sebastian makes his move. She says she's been saving herself for love, but then when it really comes along, she's not ready to act, is she? She's afraid. She accepts his challenge and is soon inviting him into her bed. He's the one who runs.
Back at home, Kathryn taunts him. His car will soon be hers, because Annette turned him down, didn't she? No, he informs her. It's just the opposite. Kathryn declares that that's even worse, if Annette was ready to sleep with him, but he couldn't close the deal. This is where I'd like insight. How does Kathryn really feel about this? Is she jealous because Sebastian's genuine feelings for Annette are deeper than his lust for Kathryn ever was. Kathryn has said that while it's easy enough to compromise herself and snag men, she inevitably loses them to ignorant and innocent girls like Cecile. Does she view Sebastian as another loss? Is she hurt? Is she mad? Or is she simply as amused by the exploits of others as ever? Does she want Sebastian back as her partner in crime or is she content to watch the lovesick fool hang himself? It's hard to tell, but she clearly takes delight in informing him that Annette has packed her things and left the home of Sebastian's aunt.
Sebastian runs after her, pulls her into his arms and they are soon sharing a night of tender passion in the film's most compelling scenes. Phillippe and Witherspoon were married the year this movie came out and it's not hard to imagine that Annette and Sebastian's believable intimacy sprang from real life emotion.
The morning after, Sebastian is still on cloud nine. So he bedded, Annette? Kathryn expects him to collect on his bet. Has he come to her to make "arrangements." Sebastian tells her he's no longer interested in anything she has to offer. She's not ostensibly angry or hurt, but orders him to break it off with Annette or she'll tell her about their bet. I don't know enough about her character to decide if she's doing this to keep Sebastian for herself or just for sport?
Of course, it doesn't matter. Sebastian could tell Annette the truth, since she suspected he was out to hang another notch on his belt in the first place. That shouldn't come as a real surprise to her. He can say that that started as his goal, but then he really fell for her and she should believe it. The forced break up is the largest plot device in a script that's full of them. Sebastian tells Annette that he doesn't love her, but since he's crying the entire time, it's hard to fathom why she believes him. Blackguards don't weep, generally. Despite this one's sobs, although Annette initially thought he was kidding about not loving her, she soon accepts it as true and orders him out of her life.
Distraught, he belatedly wants to explain everything to her, but she avoids him. He then leaves her his journal, so she can read everything herself and, hopefully, forgive him.
Realizing that Sebastian is not returning to their wicked fold, Kathryn calls Ronald (who happens to be a former liaison of her own) who is now paired with Cecile and asks him to come over. He declines and she falsely (and tearfully) claims that Sebastian has hit her. It's urgent that she see Ronald and -- it's related to Cecile. Though she says no more than that, Ronald concludes that Sebastian has slept with Cecile and runs off. Of course, the plot's persistent situations premised on failed reputations make it clear that the movie is based on a much older story, created in a bygone age when one romantic indiscretion could result in a lifetime of exile. Otherwise, it would make no sense for Ronald to rush off in a rage when he doesn't know when Sebastian slept with Cecile (before or after she and Ronald became a couple) or if he did it for improper reasons. There's really nothing, under today's standards, for Ronald to be that mad about.
We get a stony stare from Kathryn, but unless I know what she wanted, I can't tell what she's lost: the game, her pawn, her soul mate? If her feelings are conflicted, then let us see them clash. Don't just leave us with her silence.
A rejected Sebastian is leaving Annette's. She's reading his journal, taking in the unvarnished truth and considering forgiveness. Ronald is on his way to hear Kathryn's full accusations against her stepbrother. These worlds collide on a busy street. Ronald sees Sebastian, lunges at him. Sebastian is unexpectedly getting in a few good punches of his own. I didn't know they taught fisticuffs in prep school. Annette screams at them to stop fighting and tries to intervene. She's knocked into the street. Sebastian lunges to save her and, in pushing her away from an oncoming car, he's hit himself. "I love you" he whispers to Annette who holds his broken frame. "I love you too."
I flashback to the wheelchair we saw him in earlier, during the indoor pool scene. I think it foreshadowed the fact that he ends up paralyzed and can hardly believe it when it turns out he's dead. Really dead. I keep waiting for a twist, perhaps this is a trick to indict Kathryn, but it turns out the funeral everyone is attending is the genuine article.
As the mourners assemble, we find Kathryn in the restroom, having just snorted a line of cocaine from her crucifix necklace. Annette surprises her by emerging from a stall and wondering if she's all right. Patting the cross, Kathryn says she's relying on God during this difficult time. Did Annette know Sebastian, Kathryn asks? You could say that. Left alone, Kathryn just tidies herself. We don't know if she's feeling guilt, grief or satisfaction at Sebastian's passing. She enters the gathering and takes the pulpit to eulogize Sebastian when suddenly there's rustling and snickering, then everyone runs outside. Furious, Kathryn rails at their rudeness then joins them outside to find out what's going on. It turns out that everyone is (speed)reading a copy of Sebastian's journal. Annette has xeroxed and distributed hundreds of them. Even Kathryn's parents have them and now know everything that Kathryn has done, as she and her dastardly deeds take center stage in the diary's illustrated pages. Her stepfather verifies the truth of Sebastian's writings by grabbing the cross from around Kathryn's neck and finding the cocaine inside, just where Sebastian said it was. We leave Kathryn to her humiliation.
We next see a carefree Annette driving down the highway in Sebastian's prized car, wind in her hair, sunglasses on. Sebastian's leather bound journal rests in the back seat, a satisfied smile on her face and all her memories of him in her heart, we know that Kathryn's lost the bet once and for all.
I don't know what to feel here. Although, they had nice scenes, the movie was too vacuous to take Annette and Sebastian's "love" seriously. He was just as heartless as Kathryn and hadn't been converted long enough for me to mourn his death. As part of a black comedy, the ending wasn't particularly humourous and since Kathryn's feelings were largely shielded from us, her comeuppance wasn't as triumphant as it could have been or, as long-lived, since we quickly cut away from the funeral while everyone's reaction to her exposure was still occurring.
The movie delivered on some smirks and sexual posing, but hardly much else. The intentions seemed less cruel than kooky. Sebastian and Kathryn really aren't apathetic enough for this to be a study on the devoid detachment of monied youth. They're pretty easily flustered to be as jaded as the story would suggest. Presenting languid indifference as a lifestyle is a great way to condemn the wealthy, but that's not what we get. Even the way penetrable Sebastian conceded to Kathryn, much less Annette, suggested that he was never a true sociopath to begin with. Kathryn might have been one, but we didn't see enough of her to tell. Phillippe and Gellar are good together, so we should have been given more of their complicated story and less of the facile Annette/Sebastian relationship. At one point Kathryn remarks that Sebastian doesn't love her anymore and I'd never know he had or that she thought he had. Presented with a stronger motive for her actions, her sense of having been scorned and abandoned, they would have resonated more with the audience. As it is, her desultory meddling gave me little to sink my teeth in. Fill her with anger, ice or misguided pain, but not ambivalence.
I think the film's remembered most for Sarah Michelle Gellar having played so far against type and, maybe because I'd heard about that going in, I was waiting for an acting turn or tour de force that never materialized. It was fun to watch the four leads in this piece work, but only because in the 14 years since this movie was released they've all turned in much finer and fuller performances elsewhere. Even so, it was entertaining to see them nearer the beginning of their careers. Maybe if I'd witnessed this then, it would have left a more indelible impression than it can in retrospect.