Cousin Bette

Cousin Bette


Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

Geraldine Chaplin dies during the opening credits. She's lucky. She doesn't have to attempt a French accent, not that anyone else does, which is a shame, really. If Mozart could drawl Californian, while his parents spoke posh BBC English, in Amadeus, and the smart set in Dangerous Liaisons made no attempt to disguise their North American speech patterns, why get your knickers into a twist about Jessica Lange's vowel sounds, or Elisabeth Shue's bottom?

The film is neither fish nor fowl, one thing or another, comedy or tragedy. It wavers between vulgar and vapid. Set in Paris (shot in Bordeaux), during the period of Dangerous Liaisons, it concerns a family of impoverished aristos (Hugh Laurie, Kelly Macdonald, Toby Stevens and Mz Chaplin for minutes), a sculptor (Aden Young) in a garret and a night club singer (Shue) who has sugar daddies queuing at her door.

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Bette (Lange) wears black, like Mrs Danvers in Rebecca, to indicate a dark, embittered personality. She's a schemer, a manipulator and a sexually frustrated woman, who dotes on toyboy Wenceslas (the sculptor). Her neice (Macdonald) also fancies him and since she's young, fresh faced and good enough to eat, guess whose asked to dinner? Hector (Laurie), the head of the family, is a useless old fool, incapable of facing up to financial responsibility, insensitive to other people's feelings, a gambler and a womaniser, whose present mistress is the night club singer. Bette, meanwhile, determined to take revenge on her neice for stealing Wenceslas, has other ideas.

Plots are hatched, beds are hopped, hearts are broken, while stirrings of revolution can be heard in the streets outside and visual cliches pile up like severed heads. Des McAnuff is from the theatre. His cinematic shorthand is difficult to read. Lange plays Bette straight and very much on one note. Laurie and Bob Hoskins (mayor of Paris) cannot help being funny, whether intentionally, or not. Judging by the size and relevance of his part, you wonder why Hoskins bothered. Macdonald, last seen in Stella Does Tricks and Trainspotting, has lost her Glaswegian accent, although none of the vibrant qualities that make cameras love her. Shue, on the other hand, is an embarrassment. It's hardly her fault. She is made to sing MOR ballads in the club, which appears to advance the concept of easy listening by 140 years, and walk about with bare buttocks sticking out of her tights.

That healthy, broad face and well toned bod could only be the product of a disciplined LA lifestyle. As a 19th century Parisian chanteuse from country peasant stock, she is less convincing than Donald Duck presenting late night weather reports on Belgian TV.

Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001
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Revenge and bed-hopping in Balzac adaptation.
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Director: Des McAnuff

Writer: Lyn Siefert, Susan Tarr

Starring: Jessica Lange, Elizabeth Shue, Bob Hoskins, Hugh Laurie, Kelly Macdonald, Aden Young, Geraldine Chaplin, Toby Stephens, John Sessions

Year: 1998

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: US


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