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Set in the mid 1840s on the eve of the French Revolution, Cousin Bette is the story of a calculating, jealous spinster, Bette (Jessica Lange) who feels left behind by her favoured older sister, Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin) and is the abandoned by her would be husband, Hector (Hugh Laurie) who marries Adeline. When Adeline dies, Bette anticipates a change for the better – but it is not to be. Then, desperate for love, she befriends and supports a struggling, starving, suicidal young artist, Count Wenceslas (Aden Young) in the hope that his gratitude will turn into passionate love. When it does not, and indeed he falls in love with the pretty young Hortense (Kelly Macdonald) who intends to marry him. In the social setting of upper middle class France, there are many seeking love (or plain lust), including the Lord Mayor, Creve (Bob Hoskins) and the alluring seductress Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue), who becomes a tool in Bette’s jealous game as she aspires to ever more deceitful games in an obsessed journey to get the man she wants. Fate deals a final, fatal blow to her plans.

"It plays more like a melodrama than a black comedy, and despite some sexy scenes, it isn’t that sexy either. In short, Cousin Bette is neither one thing nor the other, occasionally straying into farce (not its strong suit) or into a slightly frappe love drama with social commentary, some philosophy about art and commerce, and a lot about selfishness. While Balzac’s novel is the source, this is clearly a case of not what you do but how you do it. Jessica Lange’s prowess is tested here, and although she is as riveting as ever, she perhaps overplays her character a tad. Then there is the clash of accents, one of my bete noirs, especially in films with a period setting; American (Lange, Shue), slightly lower class London (Hoskins), middle class England (Laurie) and what sounds like East European (Young) do not marry well on screen in 19th century France. It may seem a carping thing, but I find it undermines the film’s ability to fully transport us, and its ability to convince us of character. However, I may be a little too negative, because the film looks (and sounds) good enough, and there are some marvellous moments, including some lively and exotic cabaret, performed admirably by Shue herself."
Andrew L. Urban

"One can imagine that making a film of the Balzac novel seemed like a good idea. Such wit, such style, such panache. Alas, dear readers, none of these elements managed to find their way into this dull though attractive film. It is little more than a turgid costume drama, pretty on the surface but beyond that a lifeless film with some of the worst ensemble performances of recent memory. There are those accents. It is set in mid-nineteenth Paris, and yet, quel surprise, mes amis, everyone is speaking English in a variety of intonations from Californian to British and everything in between. While it is fashionable for American films to be set in Europe and one expects the cast to perform in English, surely a bit of uniformity wouldn't go astray. Jessica Lange as a dour middle-aged woman is a tough pill to swallow at best, but Lange is not only miscast, but she is so dull, her actions so unfathomable, that from the outset one doesn't care what she does, which somehow means we lose the rest of the film. Elisabeth Shue was cast for decorative, not aesthetic, reasons, and she's completely miscast, a well developed Californian movie star playing dress up. Aden Young has so much to offer, but doesn't offer it here, and as for HIS accent, sort of Polish via Canada, the less said about it the better. There's an enormous distance between the screen and audience, that one is never able to connect with Bette's predicament. The pace is also languid, and for a black comedy, the comedy is in short supply."
Paul Fischer

"Like an overbaked soufflé, the best of ingredients won't help if the whole thing falls flat. In this case, the fault lies (at least in part) with the cook - first time director Des McAnuff. Prior to this, McAnuff was artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. Unfortunately, it seems that his transition from the stage to the screen hasn't been easy. Although the film looks great, the direction is listless and the pace largely sluggish. And there are major problems with the script. The story of Bette relies upon the audience empathising with her plight and her subsequent drive for revenge. Here, she is portrayed more as a vindictive hag than a woman genuinely wronged - hardly a good recipe for the hero of the piece. The situation isn't helped by the way the other characters are written. The main villan, Baron Hulot, is so stupid you can't muster any real hatred for him; his rival (played by Bob Hoskins) is a foppish dolt and the other characters, with the exception of the innocent Hortense, are so egocentric it is difficult to feel anything for them. Jessica Lange tries hard with the role of Bette, but never breaks out from the confines of the script. Hugh Laurie similarly is not given much opportunity; and Aden Young gives a mannered (and strangely accented) performance as Wenceslas. The best performances in the film comes from the younger female actors - Kelly MacDonald as Hortense and particularly Elizabeth Shue as Jenny. The odd mix of English, Scottish, and American accents in a film about French characters set in Paris is rather unnerving."
David Edwards

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CAST: Jessica Lange, Elisabeth Shue, Bob Hoskins, Hugh Laurie, Kelly Macdonald, Aden Young, Geraldine Chaplin, Toby Stephens, John Sessions


PRODUCER: Sarah Radclyffe

SCRIPT: Lynn Siefert, Susan Tarr (based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac)


EDITOR: Tariq Anwar, Barry Alexander Brown

MUSIC: Simon Boswell

PRODUCTION DESIGN: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski

RUNNING TIME: 107 minutes

AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: October 1, 1998 (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane)


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