The 1990s cult classic “Cruel Intentions” started streaming on Netflix last Friday, allowing viewers like me to witness the film for the first time. I was completely shocked by its stepsiblings-running-a-sex-bet-to-get-in-each-other’s-pants narrative, and wondered whether the film could have been made this year.
“Cruel Intentions” follows stepsiblings Sebastian (Ryan Phillippe) and Kathryn (Sarah Michelle Gellar), and their bet to see if Sebastian will be able to sleep with pretty, proud virgin Annette (Reese Witherspoon); the bet is a result of Annette’s publishing an article in Seventeen magazine about why she’s chosen to wait to have sex. If Sebastian is successful, then Kathryn (who, again, is his stepsister), will have sex with him.
There are already clear issues with the film in its opening scenes. The entire plot revolves around a man who is trying to hook up with a girl who has made it very clear she does not want to have sex with him. Even when they meet, and Sebastian tries to pursue Annette, she makes it clear that she does not want to have sex with him. Yet, he continues.
Prior to his conquest of Annette, Sebastian already has a well-known reputation of sleeping with multiple women and finding ways to embarrass them later. In the opening scene of the film, for instance, we learn that Sebastian slept with his therapist’s daughter and posted naked pictures of her on the internet. His reputation is so bad that Annette tells Sebastian someone wrote her a letter warning her to stay away from him.
Now, I do not mean to say that I think it’s wrong to enjoy sex (or have a lot of it). As long as the sex is safe, and consensual, then there’s nothing wrong with it. What I take issue with is Sebastian viewing sex as a way to exert dominance over and ruin the reputations of his partners. Sebastian is not simply some playboy who likes to hook up with young women; he is a predator who will have sex with women and make them regret it later.
One of the most uncomfortable scenes in the film is when Sebastian gets Cecile (Selma Blair) drunk, takes naked photos of her and proceeds to go down on her. All of this occurs before Cecile had even agreed to having sex with him, yet this entire sequence is portrayed as just another one of the film’s steamy “love” scenes.
Cecile is later uncomfortable with this experience. But she’s reassured by Kathryn, who tells Cecile to continue having sex with Sebastian. She tells her that doing so will allow her to join a “secret society.” The entire context of Sebastian’s conquest of Cecile and Kathryn’s assistance in pushing Cecile to have sex with him is extremely problematic. The whole idea of consent is completely thrown away in order for Sebastian and Kathryn to pursue their sexual desires.
The only decent part of the film is when Sebastian is run over by a car and his journal, which documents his sexual conquests, is published by Annette and handed out at his funeral. This journal exposes Kathryn and embarrasses her in front of her entire school.
While this film was a huge success in the 1990s, I do not believe it could have been made today. This is not because political correctness has taken over society, but rather because the “#MeToo” and “Time’s Up” movements have made society more aware that these types of behaviors are unacceptable. While Sebastian and Kathryn did not rape anyone, they committed misconduct by using sex as a weapon to manipulate young women. Death does not forgive Sebastian for his actions, nor does grief excuse Kathryn.