"A laugh can be a very powerful thing. Why, sometimes, in life it's the only weapon we have." ~Charles Fleischer, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
"Poetry is a soul inaugurating a form." ~Edward Hirsch, How To Read A Poem and Fall In Love With Poetry
General question for those of you who have seen Cruel Intentions: What is the symbolism/significance of Annette driving Sebastian's car away from the city with his journal on the passeger seat (the movie opens, to refresh your memory, with Sebastian driving into the city, journal on his passeger seat)? If you wanna get really in-depth, include information about the sunglasses' significance as well.
And if you have absolutely nothing else to do, you could skim my paper about the movie for my Film Appreciation class. While it's like 9 pages long, I think it's at least a little bit interesting, so like I said, if you have no life, feel free to read on...
Love and betrayal. In the span of history it could be concluded that the two are synonymous. Voltaire said, “You can only be betrayed by those you trust.” Legends are based on tales of trust and love betrayed. Cruel Intentions is just such a story of love and betrayal. Based on the book Les Liaisons Dangereuses, this retelling by writer and director Roger Kumble tells the classic story with a new twist, focusing on the changes that love can bring about in even a callous individual. Sebastian thinks that what he has makes him happy, but the love he finds with Annette so eclipses his perception of happiness, and nearly redeems him of his former life.
This world of love, sex, and betrayal revolves around two teenagers, step-siblings Sebastian and Katherine. The two have made it a game to use and manipulate other people for their own pleasure and advantage. At the beginning of the movie, we find out about Katherine’s plot to “destroy an innocent girl” (Cecile) in order to get back at an ex-boyfriend who dumped her for Cecile. Sebastian reveals his challenge for the summer: screw the new headmaster’s daughter, Annette, who plans to remain a virgin until she is married. Katherine doesn’t think he can do it, so they make a wager. If he loses, she gets his car, and if he wins, he gets to make love to her. While Sebastian is trying to seduce Annette, he ends up falling in love with her, which complicates things.
The most important aspect of this movie is the characterization, particularly of Sebastian. Sebastian has to completely turn around from a manipulative person to a man in love. Kumble does an excellent job of making Sebastian’s “complete 180” believable. Sebastian begins the movie as a confident, cocky rich boy who lives life like it is a game. He does not take anything seriously, and he lives for a challenge. We see his confidence at the very beginning, when he sees a girl and tells her, “I’m taking you to lunch.” He knows that he rules his world. We see more of the way he uses people to his own advantage when he blackmails a friend of Annette’s, forcing him to tell her that he is really a good guy. He uses his knowledge of Annette’s morals, her decision to wait until she is actually in love to express love physically, and even her knowledge of his past, to manipulate her. But we see, as the movie goes on, that the manipulation does not run to his core. At one point, he seems to have a flash of conscience when he attempts to stop Katherine from making a phone call that would end up destroying Cecile.
And we see a much greater change as he starts to fall in love with Annette. The scene where we see him truly change is when he goes to see Annette. He tells her he cannot see her again, in order to persuade her to have sex. When she concedes, and starts to undress herself, he cannot go through with it and runs out of the room. The next day, he realizes that he loves her, and meets her at the train station. In the next collection of scenes, we see a totally different Sebastian. While they do end up making love, this time he does not coerce her, and he is gentle and asks her if she is ok. We get the impression from earlier scenes that he is not usually like this with women. He smiles more, and the next time Katherine throws herself at him, he ignores her. Even when Katherine convinces him that he really cannot change, that he cannot be in love with Annette and renounce his past overnight, and he breaks up with Annette, we can see that he is lying. He cannot keep from crying and he is shaking when he tells her that he never loved her, that he just used her. This scene especially shows that he has truly changed and does really love her. But the climax comes when he finally shows the ultimate form of love, when he sacrifices his life for her.
While Kumble has to show that Sebastian can change, he also has to show that Katherine is truly evil to the bone. This is shown most strongly in her relationship to Sebastian, and her betrayal of that. Throughout the entire movie, never once does Sebastian lie to Katherine. He may keep certain things from her, that he writes only in his journal, but he consistently tells her the truth. We get the impression that he assumes at least one thing: there is a mutual trust; they would not betray each other. And when she tells him that she toyed with his feelings and convinced him to lose the first person he ever loved, for no other reason than her own enjoyment at his pain, she shows that she has no care for anyone. She truly is a vicious person.
One of the other important concepts this movie touches on is the different “personalities” that people hide behind. This is seen primarily in Katherine, Sebastian, and Greg. Katherine is a pillar of perfection when she is with anyone but Sebastian. She is the “Marsha Brady of the Upper East Side.” Greg, the person Sebastian blackmails earlier, hides his homosexuality under a tough-jock exterior. Even Sebastian puts on a “nice-boy” act when he is with his aunt, and his reputation at school is almost an act itself. They all have images that they must protect to be accepted in the world. One way the director showed this theme is through the use of mirrors. Many scenes are shot showing reflections in a mirror on the wall, or on a fireplace mantel. These shots were a way of showing that no one is quite as they seem, or appear to be.
Kumble used both setting and costumes to add to the characterization, especially of Katherine and Sebastian. Kumble wanted to create a beautiful world that was a step above reality, a “modern-day period piece.” The production designer used 18th century styles to create a rich and wealthy look. The most tailored aspect of the set was the two bedrooms. Sebastian’s room is filled with warm browns, and his walls are lined with books. Kumble told the actor playing Sebastian, “I want kids to look at you and know that knowledge is power, that that’s where your power comes from.” Katherine’s room, on the other hand, is a cool blue, and crystals decorate the walls. The crew called it the “Ice Palace,” and it was a perfect reflection of her coldness and cruelty (“Creative Intentions”).
Costumes were another aspect used to make very strong statements. Kumble wanted the characters to dress up, to wear clothes that a normal teen would not wear every day, to compliment the slightly above-real feel of the film. According to the costume designer, each of the main characters had a general tone. The designs for Sebastian and Annette complimented each other very well. Annette was in pastels throughout the movie, except when she makes the decision to leave Sebastian, when she wears a red sweater over a black dress. Contrastingly, Sebastian was in blacks and dark colors throughout the movie, except when finally realized that he truly loves Annette (“Creative Intentions”).
Katherine’s and Cecile’s costumes showed a nice contrast between the two, as well. Katherine wore generally dark clothes in all but one scene, where she convinces Sebastian that he cannot change. This is an interesting contrast, because it is her most devious scene in the movie, but the audience does not realize that until later, and the light, flowy gown that she wears adds an air of innocence to her during that scene. Cecile usually wore some color of red or a deep pink (nothing pastel; that was kept for Annette), which contrasted with the darkness of Katherine’s clothes, emphasizing the contrast in character between the two.
While costumes and setting were the main visual aspects, lighting did play a role in helping to shape the visual design of the set. The film is a tragedy, and for the most part the lighting is dark, in keeping with that view. It does lighten, however, during the scene where Annette and Sebastian first make a connection. They are in the car driving through the country, and he lets down part of his “charade” and tells her that he did not enjoy spending time with the elderly at the nursing home. This show of honesty seems to warm Annette to him, and she makes him laugh. Then she reaches over and takes his hand. While they are driving, the sun is shining brightly, giving the scene a very happy feel, in contrast to the darkness in all the other rooms.
A second scene where lighting is utilized is near the end, when Katherine tells Sebastian that she was using him. This scene takes place in Katherine’s room, and the only lighting is coming through the windows, making it very dark and foreboding. Right at the point where she is detailing how she ruined his relationship with Annette, she is sitting with the light coming from behind her, and her face is in shadows, making her look essentially evil. The editing was another aspect that added a lot to the way the story was told. An example of where editing had a strong impact is the fight scene at the end. Katherine has just told Ronald, the person in love with Cecile, that Sebastian has slept with Cecile. Sebastian spent the entire night waiting outside of Annette’s house, while she reads his journal that explains why he hurt her. As the scene changes from night to morning, the music sets the tone, and we flash between Ronald, Sebastian, and Annette all walking towards the same place. The angles and rapid change in viewpoint (first we see Sebastian walking from left to right, then Ronald towards the camera, then Annette in the direction that Sebastian was walking towards, then quickly back to Ronald from a different direction, etc.) gives the definite impression that there is building up to some sort of confrontation.
A second scene where editing becomes very important is the in the end, when Annette drives off in Sebastian’s car. During this scene we flash back to shots of her and Sebastian, in love and happy. This is very important because there is a lot of symbolism in this scene that could be interpreted different ways, but the flashbacks show that she is remembering Sebastian and that exposing Katherine was not done to hurt Katherine for Annette’s own pleasure, but to redeem Sebastian. Without these flashbacks, the scene becomes ambiguous.
In addition to the visual aspects, sound was used to enhance the film. The music that was chosen went perfectly with the scenes they were played in. The movie opens with “Every You, Every Me,” a song that sets the mood for the movie. Part of the lyrics include, “Sucker love I would abuse no circumstances could excuse in the shape of things to come too much poison come undone…every me, and every you.” I think this reflects the abuse of love and trust in the movie, as well as the theme that everyone is putting on an act and no one is their real self.
Another song that is very aptly used is “Colorblind” by Counting Crows. The lyrics, “Pull me out from inside I am folded, and unfolded, and unfolding, I am ready, I am ready, I am ready, I am fine” show how Sebastian is finally opening up, allowing himself to come through, and accepting the fact that he loves her. The song was actually written for the movie, according to Director Roger Kumble (“Filmmaker’s Audio Commentary”).
The song that probably fits the most perfect of all is the one at the end, when Katherine is exposed as what she really is. The song “Bittersweet Symphony” is used, and the timing is perfectly coordinated with the song. The opening begins right when the first person walks out of the memorial service. When Katherine loses it at the podium, more instruments join, and as she bursts through the doors the entire orchestra is playing. When she takes the copy of Sebastian’s journal, the lyrics start. The timing of it all is just so perfect, it creates a beautiful ending. The song works well lyrically, too. It is a bittersweet victory over Katherine, because it came at the expense of Sebastian’s life.
The soundtrack wasn’t the only music that enhanced the film. The background music, which was put together in under 4 weeks (“Filmmaker’s Audio Commentary”) compliments the concept of a modern period movie. The music is contemporary instrumental. It keeps the classical feeling, but with a modern kick. And it sets the different scenes beautifully. The scene before Sebastian and Ronald fight at the end is a primary example. While the editing built a confrontational feeling, the music enhanced that feeling tenfold. The tense music starts at exactly the moment when Ronald comes out of his house, and stalks off down the street to find Sebastian. It builds to a climax as Sebastian and Ronald fight, and then abruptly stops as Sebastian is hit by the car. It is then replaced with a softer, sadder section for the final love scene.
Kumble uses symbolism and foreshadowing as well to tell the story. The opening shot contains both. In the opening sequence, the camera is flying over a huge graveyard. At first it is so close to the ground that you cannot make out what you are flying by, but slowly the camera angles upwards and the entire graveyard is shown, with the skyline of New York in the distance. The graveyard foreshadows Sebastian’s death at the end, but it also is symbolic of the lives ruined by both Katherine and Sebastian, prior to the beginning of the movie. Another instance of foreshadowing is at the end of the scene where Katherine tells Sebastian that he was “a little toy I like to play with.” As he walks out of the room, she whispers, “Good-bye, Sebastian.” This, while referencing the fact that their relationship has just been irreversibly destroyed, is also another foreshadowing of his death.
The rosary that Katherine keeps her cocaine in is an ironic symbol of her. There is a line where she refers to her cross, and says, “I turn to God, and he helps me through the problem.” It’s an ironic symbol, because Sebastian writes of her in his journal that she hates religion and will use the beliefs of those who are religious against them, to her own ends.
Kumble allows Sebastian one final moment of triumph “from the grave” through the use of a picture during the memorial service. As Katherine exits the building to her destruction, the camera flashes to the picture of Sebastian at the front, with a confident, cocky smile on his face, as if to say, “I got the last laugh.”
Another strong form of symbolism is the parallelism in the opening and closing scenes. The graveyard shot swings around into an overview of Sebastian, in his car, driving into the city, with his journal on the seat next to him, and his sunglasses on. The movie ends with Annette, driving Sebastian’s car out of the city, with his journal on the seat next to her, and during the scene she puts on sunglasses. I think there are a few different meanings behind the symbolism in this scene. First, there is the meaning that is mentioned earlier, made clearer with the help of the editing. As Annette puts on the sunglasses she smiles, and I think the significance of that smile is important. It is showing the happiness Annette has now that Sebastian has been redeemed.
Love and betrayal. No matter how strong the first is, there will always be consequences from the second. Cruel Intentions is a tragic story of love told against an opulent background of wealth and luxury. The elements of film work together to interweave a beautiful love into a world of deceit and betrayal, making Cruel Intentions a modern story that is as timeless as a legend.