By now, high-flown period costume dramas tend to come in two flavors: naughty and nice. Cousin Bette (Fox Searchlight) declares its naughtiness from the opening scene, in which a waxy French baroness makes heartless pronouncements from her deathbed (always good for a laugh). The ironically jaunty classical music seems to be saying ”Do you think these people with their manners and their corsets are civilized?”
We certainly hope that they aren’t, and for a while, the movie, adapted from Honore de Balzac’s novel of love, money, and revenge on the eve of the French Revolution of the 1840s, would appear to be a reasonably good showcase for lusty and unscrupulous behavior. Bob Hoskins, looking like a middle-aged Little Lord Fauntleroy, turns his eyes up to high gleam as the lascivious Mayor Crevel, who offers a teen maiden 200,000 francs for one glimpse of her naked body. Elisabeth Shue, singing badly and looking radiantly dirty-minded, is Jenny Cadine, a Paris burlesque star and courtesan who taps the desires of men and then discards them like escargot shells. And Jessica Lange, cast with dowdy improbability, is Bette, the sullen spinster in black muslin who has been raised to serve others — to serve everyone but herself — but whose lifetime of bitterness and jealousy is about to erupt all over the members of her family, who never saw her as a woman.
Lange relishes the chance to play this spiteful harridan; her performance is sly and alive. That’s more than you can say for the film itself, which winnows Balzac’s novel down to a rickety array of muddled schemes, tossing in the occasional nugget of tres coy sex play (a bedroom tryst features Shue and lots of whipped chocolate). The film’s aristocratic ciphers never seem worthy of Bette’s vengeance. Perhaps the most glaringly weightless is Count Wenceslas (Aden Young), the impoverished young artist Bette resurrects into a society sculptor and then uses to bait her hook. Meant to be a figure who inspires swoons, he comes off more like a doughy Gen-X Dracula. The poseurs, fops, and whores in Cousin Bette may have paved the way for a revolution, but by the end of the movie, it’s mostly a relief to see that their reign is over. C+ — OG
Cousin Bette STARRING Jessica Lange Elisabeth Shue RATED R 108 MINUTES