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Cruel Intentions: The ultimate guilty pleasure movie packs a nostalgic punch

Your favorite guilty pleasure movie doesn’t have to be a cinematic masterpiece. It can be embarrassing, weird and problematic.

What’s your ultimate guilty pleasure movie?

The go-to movie you can pop on and forget the world as you quote each line. You watch it at least once a year and usually by yourself, because it belongs to you, to a moment in time, to a feeling.

And best of all, it doesn’t even have to be a great movie or a classic of the pop cultural canon. It doesn’t have to be White House or starwars or When Harry Met Sally.

It can be as imbecilic as freddy got fingered or as naff as 27 Dresses or as stupefying as Jupiter Ascending. Maybe you tell people you spent a rainy Saturday doing The Godfather trilogy but was actually watching High School Musical, High School Musical 2, High School Musical 3: Senior Year and Sharpay’s Fabulous Adventure.

It’s fine, it’s your guilty pleasure movie so you may have well embrace the “guilty” part, no matter how embarrassing your choice.

Mine is Cruel Intentionsthe 1999 adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ 18th century novel Les Liaisons Dangereusesturning the callous French aristocracy into horny high schoolers on New York’s Upper East Side.

Filmmaker Roger Kumble took from Laclos’ tale of moral bankruptcy and puts a different, still relevant, sheen on it. It’s the Manhattan teen elite – they can’t legally vote or drink yet, but their vast riches make them immune to decency, humanity and scruples.

The story of impossibly beautiful step-siblings Kathryn and Sebastian manipulating their classmates through psychosexual games, Cruel Intentions was primed for me.

In 1999, I was 14 years old, obsessed with Buffy and Sarah Michelle Gellar – and by association, was in love enough with Ryan Phillippe because he had been in I Know What You Did Last Summer with my favorite vampire slayer (sorry, Faith).

I remember the promos so clearly. Phillippe’s devilish smile outmatched only by Gellar’s smug knowingness of her as she bet her of her stepbro of her he could n’t seduce the new school virgin, accompanied to the strains of Sneaker Pimps’ “6 Underground”.

But there was a problem. At 14, the movie – with its brazen sex, drugs and shocking immorality – was deemed too much for my youthful, impressionable self. It had been slapped with a MA15+ rating.

There was an attempt to “sneak” in during the last day of school term, thwarted by a belligerent usher at Sydney’s now defunct George St Village cinemas. He wouldn’t let us in without the cardboard transport concession card issued only to students 15 and over that we had temporarily borrowed to buy the tickets.

My friends and I saw She’s All That instead, in a packed cinema full of teenagers who should have all been at school. Even though Gellar had a cameo in She’s All ThatI hated it and I often wondered if it was because I resent seeing this movie instead of what I really wanted.

Two days later, I convinced a 19-year-old family friend to take me, and it was everything I wanted it to be. The erotic tete-a-tetes between Kathryn and Sebastian, the way it flaunted teen sexuality, THAT kiss in Central Park. I was still a year away from my first kiss — an awkward fumble at the back of the bus — so everything on screen was intoxicating.

It may seem relatively chaste now, but this was four months before american pie and eight years before gossip-girl – and almost two decades since the era of raunchier teen flicks Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

It was quite something that Cruel Intentions not only featured high schoolers who openly talked about and engaged in sex but used it to manipulate and gain power. Dolly magazine never told us about this.

Not for nothing, when I told my American uncle that Cruel Intentions was my favorite movie, he was horrified I had seen it at all, tut-tutting about how inappropriate it was.

A direct-to-video sequel, Cruel Intentions 2was actually a cut of the first three episodes of a prequel spin-off series that had been scrapped because executives found it too risky for TV.

By the time a mate and I made the journey out west a week later to the also-defunct Roxy cinemas in Parramatta, where it was known they didn’t check IDs, for a second viewing, it had cemented itself as a piece of pop culture that would forever be with me.

I played the soundtrack so often, the CD jewel case (which I still own) broke off in pieces. I scoured every Supreme and Valley Girl for anything that resembled Kathryn’s sheer tops. Oscar de la Renta and Donna Karan weren’t in my budget.

Fast forward to 2022, about four dozen rewatches later, and the Cruel Intentions music is touring in Australia. Is it any good? Maybe. Sort of. It’s much cheesier and bigger than its spiky predecessor. It often verges on parody but it was also obvious the audience was laughing with it and not at it.

But nostalgia is an incredibly powerful thing, it can transport us to a time that we never fully let go. In the State Theatre, on the Sydney leg of Cruel Intentions: The 90s MusicalI was 14 again – deeply obsessed and loving every moment of it.

The production is a musical jukebox which features only a few songs from the movie soundtrack but is jam-packed with 90s pop hits, ranging from N’SYNC and Britney to Meredith Brooks and Mandy Moore.

The track listing threw me at first (how dare they mess with it?!), confused as to why Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” was here when it was so strongly associated with She’s All Thator Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait”, which was used as the Dawson’s Creek theme song from season two onwards (I actually preferred Jann Arden’s “Run Like Mad”, sssshhh).

That melding of 90s pop culture nostalgia was exactly why the musical was so exhilarating. It evoked all the goodwill of a different era, drawing on more than just the Cruel Intentions movie.

When the cast broke out into a rendition of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” (of which a teeny snippet was in the original film) it brought on memories of playing the romeo+juliet soundtrack on repeat while the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris” flashed audiences back to City of Angels.

Ditties from Boyz II Men, Ace of Base, No Doubt and Marcy Playground, all seamlessly incorporated into the story and character beats, had the same effect.

But the thing about nostalgia is you have to be honest about what it really was. Was it a better time? And don’t we only remember and hold onto the best moments of any point?

The danger with nostalgia is that it ignores the parts of history we don’t want to remember, but are essential for understanding who we are right now on personal, local and global levels.

For many, the current obsession with the 90s can be chalked up in part to that it was a pre-9/11 time when the world seemed less scary and uncertain. But the fear of Y2K was n’t fun, nor was John Howard’s embrace of Pauline Hanson and her racism. And minority groups faced a lot more overt discrimination.

At 14, with raging hormones, dramas at school and at home, my life wasn’t perfect.

And neither was Cruel Intentions, themovie. Not all the performances were consistent, some of the line deliveries were cringe, there’s a weird editing thing that suggests a couple of scenes were intended to be in a different order, Sebastian’s hero’s journey isn’t entirely convincing and some of the sexual politics are definitely problematic.

But if you’re honest about all that, about what that strong dose of nostalgia is stirring, and about the ways in which the present too has its highs and lows, then slipping back into a moment, a feeling, an obsession, can be heady and fun.

Go with it.

Cruel Intentions: The 90s Musical is currently playing in Sydney, followed by Brisbane, Perth, Adelaide and Canberra


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