The 'Cruel Intentions' Soundtrack Captured the Dark Heart of Adolescence
How a cobbled together selection of radio hits for a 90s film about borderline incestuous sociopaths still has the power to make us feel sentimental.
Like other cultural artefacts of the 90s – shoegaze bands and wide leg jeans, for example – teen sex drama Cruel Intentions has been riding a significant wave of nostalgia lately. There's been a rumoured reboot, a musical and even a mixtape all recently inspired by the film. At the time, it was part of the popular trend of re-situating literary classics within the social structure of a modern-day high school inhabited by students in their mid-twenties (see also: She's All That, Clueless and 10 Things I Hate About You). A glossy take on Choderlos de Laclos' 18th-century epistolary banger, Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Cruel Intentions enlists a cast of the era's heavy hitters – including Sarah Michelle Gellar, Ryan Phillippe, Reese Witherspoon and Selma Blair – to dramatise this parable of decadence and manipulation.
To summarise: stepsiblings Kathryn (Gellar) and Sebastian (Phillippe) are cynical, super rich kids who spend their time plotting, executing and getting away with various love crimes in order to maintain their social standing. Both are highly skilled sociopaths who deceive the adults in their lives into seeing them as aspirational rather than the arsehole, borderline-incestuous couple they are. Annette (Reese Witherspoon) and Cecile (Selma Blair) get sucked into their game, with Annette coming to the pair's attention after writing an article for Seventeen titled 'Why I Plan to Wait' while Cecile is treated as a childlike plaything. The stepsiblings agree on a bet: if Sebastian can't seduce 'not gonna shag rn' Annette then Kathryn gets to keep his car and if Sebastian succeeds he gets "the only person he can't have" – Kathryn. Naturally, in his pursuit of Annette, Sebastian falls madly and earnestly in love and chooses to embrace his newfound affection over his stepsister. By the end of the film there are several falls from grace, hearts are broken and mended and someone dies.
Cruel Intentions has all the saccharine tropes of its teen drama contemporaries that centre on the romantic lives of the social elite, but at its core it has a heart of darkness. Yes, there is a Ryan Phillippe arse shot – but he also wants to fuck his sister. Yes, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair have a snog that launched a thousand sexual awakenings – but it's also a weird, exploitative trick. It may be a classic tale of deception and shagging trumped by true love and heterosexual monogamy, but it's one of the first and only to feature revenge porn, therapists and a crucifix full of gak. And, in order to bring this dark tale of teenage sexuality to life, the soundtrack pulls from every corner of the 90s to draw out all its bittersweetness and downright fucked-up-ness.
One of the things that makes the soundtrack so of its time is that it's simultaneously cool and uncool. The choice of songs is inconsistent to say the least; omnipresent names like Fatboy Slim, Blur and The Verve sit next to cult artists lost to time: Day One, Skunk Anansie and Bare Jr. This disparity is partly explained by the fact that the film's original score by John Ottman was rejected after Cruel Intentions suffered poor screen tests. The producers blamed the score and sought some cool "alternative" tunes to please the fickle teen audience. Thus, the shotgun spread of ~trendy~ acts.
Sebastian is the first character to be introduced; a blast of Placebo's "Every You, Every Me" plays as the camera zooms in on him admiring his own steez in the rear view mirror of the expensive car he's driving into Manhattan. The track – which frontperson Brian Molko has reportedly said to be about "everybody who's had the displeasure of sleeping with me" – is full of lust and longing, but also darkness and violence ("Carve your name into my arm / Instead of stressed I lie here charmed"). It's all the intimacy and turbulence of sex wrapped up in one melodramatic Gen X teen anthem. We are immediately informed that this is no ordinary, pleasant love story.
Sebastian's role is constantly in flux throughout the film, his moods forever swinging. He is a lot of things: a plaything to his stepsister Kathryn, a creep to Cecile and a soppy romantic to Annette. His petulant masculinity trumps around in a glum moodiness that predates the sad boi glamour of Take Care-era Drake and basically everything by The Weeknd. Only Sebastian could piously appeal for sympathy while delivering the 'it's not you it's me' line. As if to underline his inherent corniness, his big emotional climax is soundtracked by Counting Crows' "Colorblind" – the true Facebook "it's complicated" status of rom-com songs. After code-switching from desperate-emo-pleading to commitment-phobic-rejection within the space of a single conversation, "Colorblind" is the melodramatic accompaniment to Sebastian searching for a heartbroken Annette to right his wrongs. He intercepts her at the top of an escalator, which doubles as his metaphorical emotional summit, as Adam Duritz whimpers "I am reeeaaady" over and over again.
Cruel Intentions has its fair share of peak selections denoting tension and seduction: Bare Jr's explosive "You Blew Me Off", the soft porno vibes of Faithless' "Addictive", the melodramatic "This Love" by Craig Armstrong and Kristen Barry's smouldering "Ordinary Life". But for all its moments that feel either unconsidered or too literal – like actions-to-lyrics choreography – there's plenty of irony and subversion. Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair's gratuitous snog twists the trope of the American Pie sex romp genre, playing out to the malaise of Blur's "Coffee & TV" rather than some appropriately adolescent pop-punk or a sweet acoustic number by a singer-songwriter. Similarly, Abra Moore's "Trip on Love" – a faithful mimic of Sixpence None The Richer's 90s teen drama defining "Kiss Me", which featured as the 'falling in love' song in both Dawson's Creek and She's All That – is used to reflect a moment of manipulation rather than romance. Moore's hopeful, uplifting song about revealing a crush is coupled with a scene in which Sebastian coerces Cecil into letting him kiss her "down there". Another cutesy love scene is accompanied with Fatboy Slim's "Praise You", where as any other teen film would have reversed the order.
This warped sense of humour also emerges with the inclusion of Marcy Playground's "Comin' Up From Behind" – a subtly titled revisit of their sleazy hit "Sex & Candy" – which prominently plays through a scene in which Sebastian arranges for his gay best friend Blaine (a peroxide Pacey-era Joshua Jackson) to seduce Annette's best friend Greg so that Sebastian can ambush the pair mid-romp, take some pics and blackmail Greg into putting a good word for him in the future. You know, that ol' common coming of age plot.
The final resolution is as pompous and climactic as the song that accompanies it: The Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony" . The familiar string section gets louder and louder as everyone walks out midway through Kathryn's fabricated eulogy about peer pressure at (spoiler alert!) Sebastian's funeral. Annette dispenses copies of Kathryn's diary that reveal her evil exploits, the infamous rosary full of blow is emptied onto the floor, and Annette drives off in Sebastian's car while Richard Ashcroft repeatedly insists "it justs sex and violence melody and silence".
The musical choices can be viewed in two ways: haphazard and obvious, or eclectic and reflective. I listened to the Cruel Intentions soundtrack primarily in the fledgling year of my teens. Moving out of my tweens, I felt social pressure to mature musically – move on from Backstreet Boys to Nirvana, as it were. On Cruel Intentions, those worlds co-exist, placing "respectable" tunes next to cornballs and giving equal weight to both. The soundtrack is bitter, moody and irritable as well as corny, naive and lovestruck. It's a cloudburst of emotion from the melodramatic to the unrealistic to the twisted, and for that reason is the perfect reflection of the theatrics of adolescence. Minus the incest, hopefully.
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