This month marks the twentieth anniversary of one of the last and most unsettling of the teen ensemble movies of the nineties: Cruel Intentions, the 1999 film where stepbrother and sister, Sebastian Valmont and Kathryn Mertuil, team up to destroy naïve Cecile Caldwell. To celebrate, Sony is screening the film this week, starting today, at select AMC theatres.
Recent reviews of the film acknowledge the problematic homophobia, racial insensitivity and sexual assaults that were either ignored or underplayed during its initial release, but—spoiler alert!—there has still been little attention played to how easily anti-hero Sebastian Valmont is forgiven for raping at least one character.
I thought the #MeToo generation would have a drastically different response to such a film, one where the rapist is given a redemption arc. Then I did some research and discovered something troubling: 21st century teen dramas like Gossip Girl and Buffy the Vampire Slayer have also used storylines that allow their rapists and attempted rapists to be redeemed. The plots in all of these movies and shows become less about sexual assault and more about them changing drastically into better men with the love of a good woman.
I cited Cruel Intentions at a recent conference, where I was presenting a paper that explores how women “protecting” men from their own bad behavior not only fosters violence and harassment, but silences survivors. Kathryn’s willingness to protect Sebastian is more about her self-interest than about keeping him from being seen as a rapist, but she uses the same technique of victim-blaming questioning people often used when someone reveals they’ve been sexually assaulted to convince Cecile that she wasn’t assaulted—and that whatever happened to her was actually her own fault.
One audience member asked me if Sebastian’s death in the film indicated that he paid his penance for his wrongdoing. I don’t think it did. In the eighteenth-century novel, Les Dangereuse Liasions, from which the film is adapted, there is no atonement for Sebastian. Instead, he is supposed to represent amorality.
Death typically is seen as the ultimate punishment in literature and film. In this case, since Sebastian died while rescuing Annette, he endeared himself to her forever, even more so in this film than in the novel or the 1988 film Dangerous Liasions—in which both Sebastian and Madame Tourvel, the character Annette is derived from, ultimately die.
Since Annette lives, no man is ever going to be as romantic to her as the teenage boy who died pushing her out of harm’s way. That means she’s fine with the fact that he posted revenge porn online of one young woman. She accepts that he sexually assaulted at least one other girl.
Cecile owning her story—vis a vis distributing copies of his journal to the entire school that detail how she was the virginal sacrifice and pawn in Sebastian and Kathryn’s game—is one of the few actual redemptive moments of the film. Instead of being shamed, she willing risks destroying her reputation in order to destroy Kathryn. But in the process, she is still enabling Sebastian to posthumously explain himself and gain sympathy from the audience.
It’s worth noting that director Roger Kumble chose to have Sebastian assault Cecile through oral pleasure in Cruel Intentions. He has admitted that he wrote the film in 12 days and online versions of the script are dated February 10, 1998. That means Kumble started the project on about January 28 or 29. On January 27, the day after President Clinton announced to the nation that he did “not have sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky,” her former lover, Andy Bleiler, admitted publicly that Lewinsky had told him she had performed oral sex on Clinton. The Clinton-Lewinsky scandal may have no relevance to the plot of this film, but we can’t ignore that the power dynamics of sex and pleasure were at the forefront of the nation’s mind just days before Kumble began writing the script.
Within this context, it’s also interesting to see how Cecile’s rape narrative is complicated by the fact that she has an orgasm. Although Sebastion gives her alcohol and performs oral sex on her without consent, the audience may have been able to forgive Sebastian for assaulting Cecile because of that moment. Even Kathryn focuses on the fact that Cecile describes (what she doesn’t even know to be) an orgasm, instead of the fact that Sebastian did things to her body without her consent, when she tells her story.
Many people were and remain hesitant to accept Lewinsky’s experience as a #MeToo moment, largely because of the way she was sexualized in the media—but she has, in recent years, come to see that her relationship with the President signified an abuse of power.
Our collective denial of her story, and other sexual assault survivors’ stories, is why it is important to revisit films like Cruel Intentions decades after we first experience them. It’s also why, 20 years after it came to the big screen, I won’t be saving myself a seat.