American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Teenagers once went to the movies to see adults making love. Now adults go to the movies to see teenagers making love. "Cruel Intentions'' is a modern-day version of "Dangerous Liaisons,'' with rich kids in a prep school playing roles that were written for jaded French aristocrats in the wicked 1782 novel by Choderlos De Laclos. He created a world of depraved amorality, in which the only goal was to indulge one's selfishness.
It's refreshing, after the sponge-brained teenage romances of recent months, to see the movie reflecting that cynicism--up to a point. It crash-lands with an ending of soppy moralizing, but until the end, it's smart and merciless in the tradition of the original story.
The film stars Ryan Phillippe, a slinky schemer in the tradition of James Spader, as Sebastian Valmont, a rich kid who lives in a Manhattan mansion with his stepsister Kathryn Merteuil (Sarah Michelle Gellar). He's known as an unprincipled seducer who "has never uttered a single word without dishonorable intentions.'' She's a minx who's angered when her current boyfriend dumps her for the sweeter Cecile (Selma Blair), and in revenge she urges Sebastian to conquer Cecile and destroy her reputation.
Agreed, says Sebastian, but soon he finds a greater challenge--the virginal Annette (Reese Witherspoon), daughter of the new headmaster at their expensive school. She's written an article for Seventeen magazine praising premarital virginity, and Sebastian bets Kathryn he can deflower her. The wager: If he loses, his stepsister gets his classic sports car. If he wins, he gets his stepsister.