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The Sport of Seduction: Sarah Michelle Gellar and Ryan Phillippe in 'Cruel Intentions.'

Sarah Michelle Gellar leads a pack of cruel teens through the devious maze of high school hell

By Michelle Goldberg

THE PREMISE behind the new movie Cruel Intentions sounds as preposterous at first as Clueless, Amy Heckerling's high school update of Jane Austen's Emma. A teenage incarnation of Laclos' Les Liaisons Dangereuses? Buffy the Vampire Slayer takes on the role that Glenn Close played in Dangerous Liaisons, Stephen Frears' 1988 film adaptation of the famous French drama? It's a high-concept joke straight out of The Player.

As soon as Cruel Intentions begins, though, with a young man named Sebastian playing a coolly vicious sexual prank on his therapist and her daughter, neophyte director Roger Kumble's idea proves perfectly apt, resulting in a movie that's darkly hilarious, titillating and scarily plausible.

High school is, in a way, the last American vestige of aristocratic social structures, the only place where people have the time, boredom and passion to plot the kind of labyrinthine romantic intrigues found in 18th- and 19th-century novels. It's a place where social caste is destiny, and like the decadent upper-class world of old, it's free of the piety and decency that ostensibly govern adult behavior.

Rereading Henry James' Portrait of a Lady recently, I was struck by all the long, intense discussions, full of potent subtleties, accorded to Isabel Archer's social development and romantic possibilities. The fixation seemed somehow adolescent--but marvelously adolescent, making me wish I could return to an age when I had so much time to think about such things.

With adult TV dramas almost all set in the workplaces, stories about the intricacies of social life are increasingly the domain of self-replicating teenage TV series and, now, big-screen melodramas that plunder those shows' casts.

Pop culture today is more fixated on teenagers than at any time since the '50s. First there were the slasher movies--Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summe, their sequels and The Faculty. Besides the deliciously depraved Cruel Intentions, theaters are currently showing She's All That, a My Fair Lady meets Pretty in Pink romance.

Then there's Jawbreaker, a lurid update on Heathers with a Pygmalion subplot, a Marilyn Manson cameo and a bitchy performance by Manson's fiancée, bad-girl-of-the-moment Rose McGowan. Soon to come is Ten Things I Hate About You, the raving-and-drug-dealing drama Go and The Rage, a sequel to the revenge-of-the-nerd horror classic Carrie.

Of all the high school melodramas, Cruel Intentions is the slickest and most delectably perverse. Here, the Marquise De Merteuil and Vicomte De Valmont have been recast as Kathryn (Gellar) and Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe), rancidly spoiled Manhattan stepsiblings who destroy their peers for sport.

Sebastian's latest prey is the virginal Annette Hargrove (Reese Witherspoon), whom he first discovers when she publishes a story called "Why I Plan to Wait" in Seventeen magazine. Kathryn offers him a wager: If he can bed Annette, Kathryn will sleep with him as well. "You can put it anywhere," she purrs. As a favor to Kathryn, Sebastian also seduces 14-year-old Cecile Caldwell, a goofy ingenue who inadvertently stole Kathryn's boyfriend.

The dialogue crackles. "How is your gold-digging whore of a mother doing in Bali?" Sebastian sweetly inquires of Kathryn, who retorts, "She suspects that your impotent alcoholic father is diddling the maid." The class politics of Les Liaisons Dangereuses transfer wickedly well to upper-crust Manhattan, especially when the element of race is thrown in. Cecile's craven mother goes ballistic when she finds out her daughter is in love with her black cello teacher.

Phillippe, something of a blank in 54, is surprisingly good as the bratty, ultrasmooth Sebastian. At first, he seems to be imitating John Malkovich's performance of the same role in Dangerous Liaisons, especially in the blunt, insinuating sneer that underlies his charm. Phillipe soon makes the part his own, though, trading Malkovich's blasé world-weariness for overindulged teenage boredom.

Eventually, Sebastian falls in love with Annette, and here Phillippe almost outdoes Malkovich. His suppressed affection and yearning--and the conflicts between his emotions and his sinister self-image--are unaccountably moving as we see him, for just a few moments, reduced to a confused kid. In Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont's willingness to destroy his love in order to preserve his infamy requires a leap of faith in the viewer--looking back 200 years, it's difficult to see why losing one's bad reputation would be such a big deal.

It's hard to imagine a contemporary equivalent of the devious hierarchies of premodern French society, except, that is, in modern American high schools. We've all read about shootings that result from a teenager feeling dissed--and what are those crimes if not a contemporary version of a hotheaded duel, engaged in to preserve some besmirched honor?

Predictably, the mainstream media have already begun their hand wringing over all the drugs and sex in these films, moaning especially about Kathryn's habit of snorting cocaine off the crucifix that she self-righteously displays for adults. "Real-life parents--even the parents of Tori Spelling--are shocked," frets Newsweek. " 'I abhor some of these teenage movies,' says producer Aaron Spelling, whose track record of teen insights includes Beverly Hills, 90210 and the upcoming movie The Mod Squad. 'I think they're going too far. If they're going to have sexual affairs, I like to see condoms. We do it on TV. I think they should do it.' "

But if Newsweek writers think that such depictions will corrupt young minds, they only have to page through their own magazine to realize that, when it comes to corruption, real-life schools have far outpaced their celluloid equivalents. Recently, we were all reading about Kip Kinkel's junior high killing spree. Before that came the sexual exploits of the teenage Spur Posse, who competed with each other to sleep with girls as young as 10.

Adults like to offer the dismissive platitude that "kids can be cruel," but the quality and quantity of that cruelty is something that those who grew up in the '50s and '60s don't usually understand. If filmmakers are currently obsessed with high schools where sadism is the governing ethos, they're being as honest as they are exploitative.

That's not to say that there's nothing to take issue with in movies like Cruel Intentions and Jawbreaker. Most bothersome is the undercurrent of misogyny that stands in opposition to their TV counterparts. Gellar can proclaim in interviews that she's not Buffy, but she is still the ultimate pop-culture emblem of ass-kicking girl power.

Cruel Intentions and Jawbreaker have an almost identical climactic scene--the evil vixen standing humiliated, tears destroying her usually perfect facade. Buffy is a high school heroine who destroys the beasts who prey on her fellow students. Cruel Intentions turns her into the bloodsucker, and even the Machiavellian Sebastian is eventually revealed to be her unwitting pawn. "God forbid I exude confidence and enjoy sex," she says to him, justifying her amorality with the mantra of saucy post-feminists everywhere.

Cruel Intentions changes Dangerous Liaisons enough to allow the chaste Annette to triumph, making her virginity seem more principled than prissy, which enriches the plot but also makes the message clearer. Parents should drag their kids to Cruel Intentions--it's one of the few modern stories in which purity pays.

One of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's genius conceits is that adults don't see the horror and danger lurking all around them, and the kids almost have to protect their parents' innocence. Adults who are upset by the rampant drugs and meaningless sex in these films should be assured that modern adolescence isn't really this debauched. In fact, it's much, much worse.

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From the March 11-17, 1999 issue of Metro.

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