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Cousin Bette is a poor and lonely seamstress, who, after the death of her prominent and wealthy sister, tries to ingratiate herself into lives of her brother-in-law, Baron Hulot, and her niece, Hortense Hulot. Failing to do so, she instead finds solace and company in a handsome young sculptor she saves from starvation. But the aspiring artist soon finds love in the arms of another woman, Hortense, leaving Bette a bitter spinster. Bette plots to take revenge on the family who turned her away and stole her only love. With the help of famed courtesan Jenny Cadine she slowly destroys the lives of those who have scorned her. Written by
A near perfect film. Indulge in revenge without the guilt!
Every once in a while, a movie comes along that lets one revel in emotions that are generally frowned upon in genteel society. Revenge is one such emotion, and the very black comedy Cousin Bette deals it out in generous portions.
Bette (Jessica Lange) has always lived in the shadow of her more beautiful sister, Adeline. Adeline was always prepared for marriage and society, while Bette became a virtual servant for her family. To make matters worse, Adeline marries the one man Bette loves, the Baron Hulot. The film opens with Adeline on her death bed, listening to the confessions of her adulterous husband and spendthrift son. She makes Bette promise to take care of her family. The malicious grin on Bette's face lets us know what is coming. Bette orchestrates her revenge on each member of the family, with a cunning her family never suspected.
Part of what makes this film so delicious is that none of the characters are really very likeable, but they are all very interesting and well drawn. Even Bette is not someone you would want to welcome into your own family (although she'd make a fascinating guest at a dinner party). The only character who fares even mildly well is Cesar Crevel (Bob Hoskins). A merchant who has become the wealthiest man in Paris, he is attempting to buy his way to respectability. He is at least without pretense, even going so far as to offer 200,000 francs to see Hortense Hulot (the Baron's daughter, played by Kelly MacDonald) naked.
The story follows Bette's attempts to destroy the Baron and his family by manipulating them in their love affairs. The marriage of Hortense is expected to save the family financially, hence the appearance of Crevel. But Hortense loves the penniless Count Wenceslas Steinbach (Aden Young), a sculptor. Meanwhile the Baron has been borrowing from everyone in Paris to keep his mistress, Jenny Cadine. Bette controls all of the characters like a Grand Master.
The backdrop to the film is the decay of the French aristocratic society. Resting on the laurels of the Empire of Napoleon, oblivious to the coming revolution (the film begins in 1846), and in complete denial of the changes around them, we actually cheer for Bette as she systematically destroys the Hulot family. In a way it's the revolution carried out from within, making the fall all the more sweet.
This film is really exceptional. My only criticisms would be that (1) Elisabeth Shue as the famous actress/courtesan Jenny Cadine is merely adequate, (2) it is almost impossible to imagine the stunning Jessica Lange as the "plain" sister, and (3) the characters' accents tend to vary from time to time. The script is intelligent, clever, and realistic. The acting is very strong all around, especially by Lange. Hoskins is terrific, hitting just the right note of a materialistic man trying to be a nobleman, but not quite getting it. The locations and sets are lush and as decadent as one would expect. The direction of Des McAnuff is crisp and assured, the pace even and well controlled.
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