Sex Scenes: In 'Cruel Intentions,' Seduction is a Dirty Game
The 1999 camp classic turns 20 this year, but its protagonists are eternally stuck in a hornily psychosexual game of cat-and-mouse.
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Cruel Intentions, the decidedly camp 1999 two-time MTV Movie Award winner, is a strangely faithful adaptation of Les Liaisons dangereuses, the 18th-century epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos about a couple of incredibly diabolical and seductive libertines and their victims.
Set in '90s Manhattan, the film revolves around a group of immensely wealthy American teenager, versus the book’s perverse adult French aristocrats. Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and Sebastian Belmont (Ryan Phillippe) are the stars: a pair of beautiful, vengeful, ruthless step-siblings, whose only preoccupation is to get laid and to maintain their cool high school reputations. The near-incestuous pair pair revel in “using” people, in sleeping around to achieve their goals ,and their shared sharpest weapon is a preternatural ability to disguise their opinions and intentions… that and the coke-spoon crucifix.
Sarah Michelle Gellar teaches Selma Blair how to kiss in this movie! Now I’m going to put my tongue in your mouth and you should massage it with yours. Ryan Phillippe blackmails Selma Blair into letting him eat her pussy! And she has her first orgasm! Pacey from Dawson’s Creek is a gay heartthrob who entraps a closeted football player–and Ryan Phillippe films the whole thing!
It’s an incredibly teenage-horny movie about a pair of wolves who don a sort of metrosexual sheep’s skin. In the world of Cruel Intentions, seduction comes in the form of game, with the stepbrother and sister talking endlessly of sexual challenges, an ante-upping which end in Sebastian proposing a wager to Kathryn: If he can sleep with the promise-pledged Annette (Reese Witherspoon), who has just published a “Virgin’s Manifesto” in Seventeen magazine, then his step-sister Kathryn will let him fuck her… “let him put it wherever he wants.”
Seduction is a ritual. It’s a game. One of symbols, of lures and traps. In his Seduction, Baudrillard poses a similar view of the act, contrapposing the game of desire to the rule of production. It is the aristocrat (the ultra-rich less than 1%) who has time to meet, the interest to scheme and exchange incredibly long epistolary exchanges while the bourgeois (the entrepreneur) is too busy and involved in reproducing the material circumstances which allow the game to flourish. Viewed this way, it makes sense the film was adapted with teenagers, since today, teens are perhaps the only ones who still have that kind of leisure.
The game of seduction is, for the teen step-siblings, a way to recognize and manage erotic tension. They are constantly flirting, touching, provoking each other, the tales of their conquests are way to both brag and build complicity. It’s such a '90s-ironic cool way of showing love and desire, by constantly running around and denying one another, by having sex with everyone except the one they really want.
But as Baudelaire remarks in his notes on Les Liaisons dangereuses, here we see people with wealth, beauty, and intelligence making themselves miserable by chasing reputation and self-regard, missing how easy it could be to be happy. Annette the virgin, who was supposed to be just another scene in the play of the incestuous couple, exemplifies the supposed simplicity of happiness by telling Sebastian he should learn not to take himself seriously, proceeding to make him laugh by making silly faces. Of course, as popular movies go, he will love her for it, for his being able to finally be sincere, unconcerned with his self-image for her allowing him to finally be able to open about caring for someone else. The sex between the two is mirrors in awkward, sweet, teenagerish choreography without irony.
The now forgotten pages of Teen People, Teen, and Seventeen didn’t let the millennium viewer forget that Phillippe and Witherspoon were dating at the time of the movie. And whether for sheer promo of not, this alleged chemistry makes the scene feel simple, with just a few light kisses as naked bodies undulate in contact.
And this is where the teen dream film gets its “message”. Despite having won the wager, the newly in love and changed Sebastian refuses to redeem his win from Kathryn. She understands this and says to him “you don’t love me anymore.” What had started the game was the understanding that love has an end, of how easy it is to get bored, and what it takes to always renew the interest of your lover. The game of seduction was to be a relentless, infinite play that would perennially postpone the end of the step-sibling’s affection by this repetition, creating many artificial first times. The hope is that in this game of masks, subterfuges, and tricks they will build a maze of mirrors in which they can get lost and live together forever. But like Kathryn’s cocaine crucifix, it’s only a matter of time until the mirror breaks.