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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
First, I want to thank the two reviewers who read Honoré de Balzac's "Cousin Bette," and commented on this film at length as of the time of my writing here. It was long ago that I read anything of Balzac, and that was in school. I understand that this film is a considerable deviation from the novel, and that the theme is altered as well. So, my comments here will be about this movie and story as they are. I won't compare it to the novel or any other productions based on it. But, as its own story, this film, "Cousin Bette" might very well be compared to other stories of literature and film.
About half way through watching the movie, Bette (played by Jessica Lange) reminded me of another character from literature Svengali. He was in George du Maurier's 1896 novel, "Trilby," that was also set in mid-19th century Paris. Svengali hypnotized the talented Trilby to make her a famous singer. He dominated and controlled her every move. In this film, Cousin Bette doesn't hypnotize but she cleverly manipulates and controls people under the guise of friendship, family and helping them. It isn't just one person, but all of the main characters eventually. And, it isn't to have any of them achieve anything. Rather, she uses them as pawns to help destroy someone else most of them, unwittingly.
From that standpoint, Jessica Lange's performance is very good. She plays a female Svengali who is even more dastardly than the original character because she brings the death and ruin of more than one person. This Bette could write the book on revenge, conniving, lying, stealing, lusting, manipulating, concealing, deceiving and hating. How anyone can see this film as comedy is beyond me. It is drama and tragedy. It's a tragedy not only for all those whom Bette brought down but not because she brought them down. They fell because of their own foibles, deceit, wasteful lifestyles, self-indulgence and meaningless lives and living. That, I think, was the real point of Balzac's novel and others like it. But, it also was a tragedy because Bette lost her own soul in the process.
No, I didn't find any glee or chuckles in a "black" comedy here. This film clearly was tragedy, no matter how the movie marketers labeled it. I suppose all the roles played were good for what the film became. But, I don't get enjoyment out of watching such sinister stories or features of such characters. One can get an idea that the movie will be stuck in the muck of hatred, revenge and destruction and never rise above it or attain any kind of redemption. About mid-point in the film, Bette says, "Oh, my dear. The devil has a sister." She was right. And her name is Bette.
I would be interested in seeing the 1971 BBC mini-series, if it becomes available on DVD at a reasonable price.
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