108 minutes | Rated: R
Rereleased: Friday, June 26, 1998
Directed by Des McAnuff
Starring Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue, Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Laurie, Bob Hoskins & Aden Young
Inconsistent period comedy comes off like a sloppy soap opera
Attempting to adapt Honore de Balzac's 19th Century novel "Cousin Bette" as something of a dark comedy version of "Dangerous Liaisons," Broadway director Des McAnuff has turned his first feature film into a confusing and sloppy soap opera.
The book, about a double-dealing, bitter old maid plotting against the family she blames for her lonely lot in life, has been turned into an uneven romp that trifles in the sexual, financial and political games of pre-Revolution Paris.
Very inconsistent in its comedy, "Cousin Bette" has a sputtering narrative that leaves star Jessica Lange flitting in futility between sinister plotress and pathetic spinster who fantasizes about younger men.
The title character is supposed to be calculating her family's comeuppance, resentful over life-long second-class treatment. Her recently dead cousin was "the pretty one" growing up -- the one with the dowry, the one who married well while Bette's romantic ambitions were ignored -- and the film implies in the opening death bed scene that Bette is planning to avenge herself on the indebted widower (Hugh Laurie) and defame his dewy, virginal daughter (Kelly Macdonald) who is being presented as marriage material in Paris society.
But before Lange can muster even a wicked wink, the script jolts sideways into a unrequited romance between Bette and a starving young artist (Aden Young) that leaves the villainous antagonist looking like a sad puppy for several reels.
The revenge plot appears and disappears throughout the story as we're clumsily introduced at length to secondary characters that eventually play minor roles in Bette's wayward scheme.
Elisabeth Shue is a tarty, untalented burlesque actress who has affairs with both the widower and a dotty middle-aged aristocrat, played by Bob Hoskins. Hoskins is, in turn, courting Macdonald, who is appalled at the thought of marriage to dirty old man.
Much to Bette's chagrin, Macdonald takes up with her young artist and soon marries him, despite the fact that she was supposed to marry money and rescue the family's finances. Why her father doesn't object is never addressed.
The screenplay (by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr) seems to have cut several layers from Balzac's characters, leaving their complexities unexplored, and director McAnuff fails to hold them to any consistency. Bette, her young cousin and the artist all flip-flop between deviousness and devotion throughout. McAnuff has a hard time reigning in his sub-plots as well, even though they all converge in the last reel.
"Cousin Bette" features a relatively talented cast that, given better material and a more experienced director, might have mustered performances that could have redeemed the film. But because the movie is never very clear about its comedic intentions or its characters' motivations, the actors are left rudderless and the film never finds its way.