In his screen directing debut, theatrical wizard Des McAnuff serves up a handsome, witty but frosty film that contemplates behavior both chilling and casual. The decadent Parisian setting of Honore de Balzac’s 1846 novel “Cousin Bette” lends a rich backdrop to a tale of greed, infidelity and chicanery. Still, despite the presence of marquee performers and some ribald antics, it’s far too erudite a yarn to hold out much hope for appeal beyond an upscale niche crowd.
With unrest growing in the 1840s, France is wallowing in a moral and social decay in which politesse has been quietly swept under the carpet and the most inhuman conduct is de rigueur. In what is essentially a tale of revenge, Bette (Jessica Lange) is the poor, spinster relative of a noble family headed by the lecherous Hector (Hugh Laurie). His wastrel ways have virtually bankrupted the household, and the down-turn in the Hulot family fortunes — coupled with the political schisms in France — provide an ideal climate for Bette to “take care” of her relatives.
But baser human instincts aren’t so easy to predict. She gives succor to a penniless foreign noble, Wenceslas (Aden Young), and enlists him to do her malicious mischief. But rather than seduce and abandon Hector’s daughter, Hortense (Kelly Macdonald), the struggling sculptor winds up in wedded union with her. It doesn’t help matters that Bette also had amorous intentions toward the young man.
Generally a shrewd observer of human foibles, Bette wants not only to undo her cousins, but also to humiliate each one publicly. To that end, she finds a powerful ally in Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue), Hector’s mistress and a primary reason for the drain on the family finances.
Jenny is a music hall star due to her beauty rather than any particular vocal or thespian ability, and her vulnerability lies in the realization that one day her looks will fade. Bette finds little resistance from the actress when she arranges for Cesar Crevel (Bob Hoskins), the richest man in Paris, to take on the role of her benefactor.
More twists ensue, but eventually both the title character and political upheaval mete out a sort of perverse justice. Although Bette’s machinations (successful and otherwise) are fascinating to watch, one gets little satisfaction from the various comeuppances. The protagonist may indeed have cause to wreak vengeance on her relatives and their circle, but she herself lacks the humanity required to draw in the audi-ence as a fellow conspirator and provide it with a sweet-tasting victory.
There’s an overall coldness to the film that begins with the story adaptation by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr and extends to the filmmaking technique. McAnuff establishes a measured, consistent pace that initially serves the piece well but flags as the characters’ m.o.s become more predictable. And though sumptuously shot by Andrzej Sekula on locations in and around Bordeaux, the sets are given far too much emphasis, at the expense of the characters.
The major exceptions are the music hall sequences, whose vitality and humor expand the context of the tale. Shue continues to reinvent her screen persona, demonstrating an impressive versatility.
In the title role, Lange unfortunately emerges as a little too obviously evil. Far from a nuanced villain, she quickly establishes her character’s bent, at a near-hysterical level. The severity of the character is heightened by her plain, dark wardrobe and by stark lighting that gives her face a cadaverous mien.
The other cast members fare considerably better, including the ever-reliable Hoskins and a delightfully foppish performance from Laurie. There are also nice turns from Macdonald, whose Hortense understands the folly in the idea of money as a measure of beauty, and from Young, whose fallen aristocrat knows that the appearance of wealth is almost as good as the real thing — as long as there’s food on the table.