A consistently intelligent (or at least bright), coherently constructed comedy that is on occasion a rather pointed critique of the American education system in the…
Characters motivated by money are always more interesting than characters motivated by love, because you don't know what they'll do next. Tom Wolfe knew that when he wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities, still an accurate satire of the way we live now. Maybe that's why writers from India, where marriages are often arranged, are the most interesting new novelists in English.
The Victorians knew how important money was. The plots of Dickens and Trollope wallowed in it, and Henry James created exquisite punishments for his naively romantic Americans, caught in the nets of needy Europeans. And now consider "Cousin Bette," a film based on one of Balzac's best-known novels, in which France of the mid-19th century is unable to supply a single person who is not motivated more or less exclusively by greed. Wolfe said his Bonfire was inspired by Balzac, and he must have had this novel in mind.
The title character, played by Jessica Lange with the gravity of a governess in Victorian pornography, is a spinster of about 40. Her life was sacrificed, she believes, because her family had sufficient resources to dress, groom and train only one of their girls--her cousin Adelaide (Geraldine Chaplin). Bette was sent to work in the garden, and the lucky cousin, on her death bed, nostalgically recalls the dirt under Bette's nails. When the cousin dies, Bette fully expects to marry the widower, Baron Hulot (Hugh Laurie). But the baron offers her only a housekeeper's position.
Refusing the humiliating post, Bette returns to her shabby hotel on one of the jumbled back streets of Paris, circa 1846, where the population consists mostly of desperate prostitutes, starving artists and concierges with arms like hams. Bette is not a woman it is safe to offend. She works as a seamstress in a bawdy theater, where the star is the baron's mistress, Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue). The rich playboys of Paris queue up every night outside Jenny's dressing room, their arms filled with gifts. Baron Hulot does not own her, but rents her, and the rent is coming due. Bette knows exactly how Jenny works, and uses her access as a useful weapon ("You will be the ax--and I will be the hand that wields you!").