Cousin Bette

  • 1998
  • 1 HR 48 MIN
  • R
  • Comedy, Drama, Historical

A lousy, virtually unrecognizable adaptation of Balzac's classic novel, chronicling the destruction of an aristocratic French family at the hands of a vindictive spinster. Jessica Lange stars as Lisabeth -- Cousin Bette, as she's affectionately referred to by Baron Hulot (Hugh Laurie) and his haughty family, which is about all the affection they have to...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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A lousy, virtually unrecognizable adaptation of Balzac's classic novel, chronicling the destruction of an aristocratic French family at the hands of a vindictive spinster. Jessica Lange stars as Lisabeth -- Cousin Bette, as she's affectionately referred to by Baron

Hulot (Hugh Laurie) and his haughty family, which is about all the affection they have to offer the 40-year-old poor relation. The Hulots treat the unattractive and tragically unmarried cousin of the late Baroness Hulot (Geraldine Chaplin) more like a servant than a relative, and she's often the

butt of their cruel jokes. But Bette harbors a secret, though unrequited, love: a starving young sculptor named Wenceslas (Aden Young), who occupies the garret above Bette's squalid Paris flat and whom she supports. When young Hortense Hulot (Kelly Macdonald), the Baron's pretty daughter,

contrives to meet, then marry, the temperamental sculptor, Bette unleashes a storm of pent-up hatred. With the help of the Baron's mistress, courtesan Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue), Bette takes her revenge, stopping at nothing short of the total ruin of the Hulot family. Tony Award-winning stage

director Des McAnuff and writers Susan Tarr and Lynn Siefert have scooped out the nasty heart of Balzac's novel -- leaving behind all the then-fashionable anti-Semitism and at least some of the misogyny -- but they've tossed out the baby with the bathwater. Balzac's scathing critique of the

vulgarity of the emerging bourgeoisie is reduced to a naughty, empty romp filled with heaving bosoms, tight corsets and writhing, chocolate-smeared flesh. The cast just seems bewildered by it all: Lange is completely wasted -- she glares, curls her lip and acts as if something were actually

happening -- while Shue and Bob Hoskins (playing a parvenu perfumer with a lecherous eye) are laughably miscast.

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