Cinema Sounds: Cruel Intentions


No one would call 1999’s Cruel Intentions a great movie, or even a good one. Too much of this modern-day Dangerous Liaisons adaptation relies upon gimmicks: dialogue that plays out like a series of for-shock-value one-liners rather than actual conversation (including Sarah Michelle Gellar’s “You can put it anywhere”), a flash of Ryan Phillippe’s naked ass, and a girl-on-girl kiss between Selma Blair and Gellar. Still, the filmmakers clearly knew what they were doing. Despite the mixed critical reviews, the movie went on to do pretty well in box-office receipts and, not surprisingly, garner an MTV Movie Award in the Best Kiss category.

Questionable quality aside, I’ll always have a soft spot for Cruel Intentions. For starters, it was one of the first R-rated movies for which I was able to proudly flash my driver’s license at the movie theater and not have to have an upperclassman purchase my ticket for me. (And this, after my mother had told me, “You’re not seeing that! It has lots of bad S-E-X.”) Then there was my freshman year of college, when a number of equally lame floor-mates and I watched the movie on VHS at least once a week. One friend once said that every time she ascended an escalator, she hoped she’d see a blue-shirted Ryan Phillippe waiting at the top.

But let’s forget about all of the movie’s campy-ness and its by-default level of quality for a moment. The soundtrack is pretty stellar, and it’s even managed to avoid sounding entirely dated. Sure, there are a couple tracks that place the movie firmly within the late ’90s – Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” and The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony”, for example – but the nostalgia is more sweet than bitter in both cases.

The soundtrack leads off with Placebo’s excellent “Every You Every Me”, as do the film’s opening credits. With its fast-building tempo and heavily paired drum beats and guitar strokes, the song signifies the film’s wonderful tension that is present from the beginning.

Blur’s cheerful “Coffee & TV” features a high-pitched, breezy refrain that pairs well with its scene (the kissing scene, which I myself am getting tired of mentioning here already). But still, you can’t picture that line of saliva stretching between Gellar’s and Blair’s lips without recalling that distinctive up-tempo beat in the background.

Blair’s appearances on screen are usually accompanied by some track that suggests her naiveté. Day One’s “Bedroom Dancing”, with its playful sexiness, can be heard when Phillippe has just seduced the virginal Blair, and she’s basically acting as manic as ever. Abra Moore’s “Trip On Love” appears during a scene in which she’s pulling a red hoodie over her head, and, fittingly, the lead singer has the voice of a little girl.

Counting Crow’s piano-heavy but otherwise spare “Colorblind” contains lyrics that match the on-screen situation in some very literal ways. Phillippe’s Sebastian has chased after Reese Witherspoon’s Annette and is attempting to cross her path at the train station. It’s the first shot in which he’s wearing an actual color (the blue shirt), which signifies his emotional transition. The lyrics “I am colorblind/coffee black and egg white/pull me out from inside/I am ready/I am ready” allow for transition into the next scene, in which he of course takes her virginity.

Marcy Playground’s “Comin’ Up From Behind” begins with a strange game-show-esque ping and is probably the heaviest-rocking selection on the album; it plays in the movie when Phillippe is traipsing through the night en route to blackmail a gay classmate.

Then there’s Aimee Mann’s “You Could Make a Killing”, and I will posit that this song is borderline impossible to dislike. If you’ve ever enjoyed the folksy stylings of Aimee Mann, you’ll like this one. It appears later in the film in accompaniment to Sebastian’s realization of his remorse.

Bare Jr.’s “You Blew Me Off” is more dated; it sounds like the type of song that would play during a film sequence in which a group of high school football players runs onto the field. Who knows, maybe it was used during Varsity Blues. As for some of the other album throw-aways, Skunk Anansie’s “Secretly” isn’t a bad track, but it seems out of place with the other mostly pop-heavy selections. Craig Armstrong’s and Elizabeth Fraser’s “This Love” will make you fall asleep, and Faithless’ “Addictive” is a creepy track – the mostly spoken verses contrast with a wailing refrain in which the singer’s gender isn’t identifiable. Also, like “Bittersweet Symphony”, its inclusion is a bit too literal. The track, which contains lyrics such as “change around the words that you say to suit me fine,” plays during a scene in which Gellar attempts to manipulate Blair’s mother.

The soundtrack closes out with “Bittersweet Symphony”, as does Cruel Intentions. The final third of the movie ventures into a sort of a moralistic territory, which seems an odd shift in tone from the rest of the film; either way, “Symphony”’s pairing with the final scene seems a bit too on the nose. Still, the film’s denouement is memorable in its own right, and the sweeping shots of Phillippe’s car being driven into and out of the city serve as bookends to the story. The closing sequence wouldn’t be the same without the haunting “Symphony”. Also, Blair is as haughtily hilarious as always.

Would this movie be nearly so appreciated if it were released today? Not likely. Gellar is well past her Buffy the Vampire Slayer era, and she, along with the rest of the cast save Witherspoon, has ridden out the wave of the late-’90s teen flick. (I haven’t even mentioned that the movie also features Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek and future rehab-queen Tara Reid.) Much of the soundtrack, though, still sounds pretty fresh, and that’s an accomplishment for something that’s been around for 11 years.