This teen comedy-drama playfully adapted Choderlos De Laclos’ 1782 novel Les Liaisons Dangeureuses into a tale of sex, sluts and cocaine. Not that different from the source material then, but here the action is relocated to 1990s Manhattan and the drama kept mostly among carnal-obsessed upper-class teens. The traffic-stoppingly gorgeous Ryan Philippe plays the anti-hero. His one big desire is to have sex with his step-sister Sarah Michelle Gellar, and to do this he must take part in one of her depraved games of manipulation, which involves sleeping with their headmaster’s moralistic daughter Reese Witherspoon.
After Witherspoon publishes a manifesto preaching the joys and virtues of abstinence and virginity, Philippe not only leads her into temptation, but shows her how to find it for herself. But step-sister Gellar remains sceptical as to whether his skills of seduction can lead to the de-cherrying of such a noble, pure and opinionated candidate. She teases him along, making sure his interest, and other more physical parts of him, are kept up by rubbing herself up against him at every opportunity. His prize for making Witherspoon fall from grace will be a chance to live his semi-incestuous fantasy with Gellar for real. “You can put it anywhere…” she says, taunting him with the thought of claiming his reward (and probably shaking the bars of the 15 classification). She also has a challenge of her own on her hands: to take revenge on her ex-boyfriend by turning his dense new-found darling into a slut.
What made Cruel Intentions such an important cult 90s classic was its fearless belief that, though parents may disapprove and its rating may restrict younger audiences, teenagers across the world would seek it out, no doubt feeling very depraved themselves as they sneakily watched it on VHS while their parents were out. Since then we’ve had many other films and TV shows that have tried to use the shock of sex as an advertising drive. When TV hit Gossip Girl began, promotional posters boasted worried quotes from publications such as the Boston Herald, which claimed it to be “Every parent’s nightmare”. Rebellion will always find an audience, and Cruel Intentions helped pave the way for teen entertainment that wasn’t afraid to show its protagonists and villains engaging in sexual intercourse and drug abuse.
I am not for one minute claiming all the teens depicted in Cruel Intentions are models for a healthy lifestyle, nor do I believe (unlike E4’s Skins) that having loads of wild sex and taking illicit drugs is a normal way of spending one’s teenage years. I just admire it for being brave enough to use the fact that, although certain ways of life are wrong, there is something voyeuristically attractive about watching them onscreen. For this reason alone it deserves a place as a guilty pleasure in even the most respectable of DVD collections.