Cousin Bette

on June 12, 1998 by Luisa F. Ribeiro
A witty satire set in mid-19th-century France, "Cousin Bette" is a gleeful tale of romantic revenge that provides a welcome return to form for Jessica Lange. After being wasted in too many ineffectual films and roles, Lange is back with a smoldering vengeance in this by turns bitingly funny and archly revealing study of treachery, lust and greed.
   Based on the once taboo writings of Honore de Balzac, "Cousin Bette" is about the long-suffering black sheep of the Hulot family (Lange), who has spent her life in a futile rivalry with her beautiful cousin, Adeline (a memorable cameo by Geraldine Chaplin). At Adeline's death, Bette hopes to at last rise to the position of mistress of the Hulot homes, only to have the capricious Hector Hulot (Hugh Laurie) ask her to become his housekeeper instead. Bitter, Bette remains in her shabby Paris apartment, supporting herself as a costumer for a burlesque show starring the toast of the city, Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue). Living just above Bette is a starving young artist, Wenceslas (Aden Young), with whom Bette falls in love. She encourages him in his artistic ambitions only to see him snatched away by Hector's young daughter Hortense ("Trainspotting's" Kelly MacDonald).
   Determ ined to wreak her revenge on Hulot and Wenceslas, Bette craftily sets about ensnaring everyone in her trap, including the mayor of Paris, Monsieur Crevel (the always wonderful Bob Hoskins).
   Making his directorial debut, playwright and stage director Des McAnuff keeps the pace brisk and adds some delightfully irreverent and unexpected gags that never break the luscious period detail provided by Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski's production design. The only major distraction here is Shue, who is never for a moment convincing as a 19th-century burlesque queen. Her intentionally monotone stage performances strain credibility and lack the necessary ironic touch that might have saved it. MacDonald, however, turns in a smart, skillful performance that matches Lange's in complexity and depth. Starring Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue, Bob Hoskins and Hugh Laurie.Directed by Des McAnuff. Written by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr. Produced by Sarah Radclyff. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R for sexuality. Satirical drama. Running time: 109 min.
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