While its subject matter made it obviously off-limits during the Golden Age of Hollywood, filmmakers have been playing catch-up during the last few decades. French director Roger Vadim made the first film adaptation in 1959 (which was inexplicably released in the U.S. in 1962 as Dangerous Liaisons 1960); the late '80s saw the release of two competing films--Stephen Frears's Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and Milos Forman's Valmont (1989). One might have thought that the coincidence of these dueling Liaisons would have saturated the market for the foreseeable future, but Kumble's change of setting is so significant that the new version is justifiable. (Actually, the notion of updating the story isn't precisely original: Vadim's film took place among contemporary jet-setters.)
While the sheer viciousness and amorality of the characters is still outrageous, the sexual content has lost much of its shock value. But Kumble has found a way to make that aspect scandalous again: He has had the temerity to make the main characters high school kids. In a marketplace dominated by teen viewers, it's a commercial inspiration. In aesthetic terms, it's just plain wacky--crossbreeding one of the wittiest, nastiest novels ever written with the gum-snapping world of She's All That and Varsity Blues. It's like Bugsy Malone . . . but with sex and wickedness!
Madame de Merteuil and Valmont are reincarnated here as Kathryn Merteuil and Sabastian Valmont, two upper-class Manhattan step-siblings who never seem to be more than an inch away from step-incest. They are portrayed by Sarah Michelle Gellar--Buffy herself!--and Ryan Phillippe, who also worked together in the dreary I Know What You Did Last Summer. (Curiously, in Vadim's version, Valmont was played by French heartthrob Gerard Philipe, who, given the spelling, is presumably not a relation.)
Kathryn's most recent beau, Court Reynolds (Charlie O'Connell), has dumped her for innocent, dumb-as-a-post Cecile Caldwell (Selma Blair, who, distractingly, sometimes looks like a scrawny version of M. Lewinsky). For revenge, she asks Sabastian to help her corrupt Cecile while Court is away for the summer, so that Court will end up with secondhand goods. Even at this early juncture, we encounter the inevitable problems in changing the social milieu: Do most high school boys really put a premium on their girlfriends' virginity these days? Am I giving them too much credit by assuming that hymenal integrity has lost its once nearly holy value? Have fin de millennium values regressed forty years?
Meanwhile, Kathryn and Sabastian make a bet over whether he can seduce the inordinately virtuous Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), who has written an article for Seventeen on why she, for one, is saving herself for matrimony and true love. If he fails, Kathryn gets his prize 1956 Jaguar; if he succeeds, she'll sleep with him. "I'll fuck your brains out," she coos. "You can put it anywhere." (Later, she reinforces his flagging determination by giving him half a handjob--which is presumably one of the main reasons this youth-targeted film has an R rating.)
On first hearing of the project, one might have naturally assumed that Witherspoon was cast as Kathryn and Gellar as Annette. After her terrific performance in Freeway, Witherspoon could easily have been limited forever to bad-girl roles. But, in fact, she's mostly convincing, though even her best efforts cannot make Annette's falling for Sabastian entirely believable; the script does not help her out here. As the story plows toward its finale, the cultural dislocation problems become worse, until by the end they almost defeat the whole film. What is the '90s high school equivalent of a duel to the death? Kumble's solution is contrived and dopey. And the final scenes of Kathryn's comeuppance make absolutely no practical sense.
There are a few other little slips throughout. The opening sequence takes place in a psychiatrist's office . . . with glass walls . . . in what appears to be a mall. Maybe such a shrink exists, but who would go see her? It's not a particularly believable note on which to kick off the film.
Still, Kumble comes up with some genuine witty new dialogue, in addition to the lines that are taken directly from the original. And he does give the material some extra kick, out of the sheer perversity of having sweet-faced Gellar behave so wretchedly.
Written and directed by Roger Kumble; suggested by the novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos. With Ryan Phillippe, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Reese Witherspoon, and Selma Blair.