Requiem For A Film: Revisiting Sarah Michelle Gellar in "Cruel Intentions"
Happy 20th birthday, Cruel Intentions. Like most things from 1999, it hasn’t aged all that well. The “edgy for the year 1999” premise (two lusty and depraved step-siblings make a plan to deflower the headmaster’s virginal daughter before the start of term) has dulled some. It was sharp jab to polite society then, sure, but now it registers as only a slightly ruder version of the average episode of Gossip Girl. And “leading man” Ryan Phillipe, remember that guy? Me neither. Not to mention a casually homophobic sub-plot. The boneheaded sexual politics that turn rape and seduction into synonyms. I could go on, but you get the idea.
But some things about Cruel Intentions have aged like fine wine. For one, the soundtrack. Seriously, check out this, this, and this. And most importantly, a brunette and expensively dressed Sarah Michelle Gellar radiating menacing sexuality as the spiteful, outrageously horny, sarcastic, fantastically wealthy, vengeful prep school vampy vixen and step-sister, Kathryn Merteuil. She is so funny and entertaining and sincere in getting off on her own deep reservoirs of viciousness that she made me cackle like a witch and want to instantly re-watch a thoroughly mediocre teen movie. It reaffirmed my belief that we don’t want characters who are necessarily likeable; we just want them to be passionate about whatever they’re doing.
But, sidebar, you know what else aged poorly from 1999? Reviews of Cruel Intentions. Like this one from Rolling Stone:
“Gellar is a TV delight on Buffy the Vampire Slayer – wry and winning – but she’s over her head here trying to play grown-up”.
What an empty-headed criticism considering Sarah Michelle Gellar was a 22-year-old playing an 18-year-old. Setting that aside, this thoughtless dismissal of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s work in the film is infuriating and puzzling. But even in her most well-known role as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gellar remained a criminally slept-on actress. Part of it could be because she makes it all look easy. Acting seems to garner the most acclaim when the effort is visible, and dramatic in its visibility (see: Leonardo DiCaprio winning an Academy Award as a cherubic and well-fed millionaire struggling through harsh terrain for eternity in The Revenant; Christian Bale’s various body transformations; Charlize Theron deeply uglified and frightening in Monster; Tom Hardy’s various oddball, impossible-to-place accents; Johnny Depp as a pile of quirky scarves and hats).
However, in Cruel Intentions Gellar is quite a bit less showy about her performance despite the sheer blackly depraved ridiculousness of Kathryn Merteuil. Instead of going full camp like most others would, Gellar takes relatively witless lines like a muttered “fucking idiot” and “I’m the Marcia-fucking-Brady of the Upper East Side and sometimes I want to kill myself” and turns them into withering witticisms. She does more with an expertly timed eyebrow raise than most others do with a page of spicy Aaron Sorkin dialogue. And the coup de grace is that she gets you to feel real twinges of sympathy when her precious reputation is destroyed – in a cheesy scene set to the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”, no less. This all shouldn’t be so. Sarah Michelle Gellar makes it so, without breaking a sweat. Whenever she is on screen scheming, screwing, or sniffing coke from her Rosary, there’s an instant, almost tangible glow-up to the perfunctory proceedings.
What’s more remarkable is that Sarah Michelle Gellar was playing against type. Again, it seemed so natural. She slipped into the role of a twisted and unfeeling New York sophisticate as easily as she slipped into Buffy’s everywoman brand of weekly valley girl heroism. With only these two roles, Gellar demonstrated a remarkable range. It’s an international shame her career hasn’t yet shot into the stratosphere. I’ll continue to wait, though.