'Bowdlerization' is, if anything, too kind a description of this super-cheesy adaptation of Honore de Balzac's penetratingly dark novel, Cousin Bette. With Des McAnuff's maladroit direction and a hideously low-minded adaptation by Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr, it plays more like a crinolined episode of 'Dynasty.' Indeed, the producers would have been wiser to chuck the costumes and Second Empire French setting and just let it play itself out as another soap opera-ish 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.' You can sense something foul from the initial frames, which are desperately antic, hitting wrong notes aplenty and awash in the thunderously loud 'Masterpiece Theatre'-like Muzak that underscores every moment with mind-numbing heaviness.
Poor Bette (Jessica Lange) is the plain, unloved human doormat for the Hulot family. Rather than marry its recently widowed scion, Hector (Hugh Laurie), she is offered a job as his housekeeper, which she refuses with suppressed fury. Wenceslas (Aden Young) the comely, impoverished sculptor she rescues from starvation, deserts her for the younger charms of Hortense Hulot (Kelly Macdonald). Even her work as costumier for a theatrical company brings her little joy, as she must contend with the temperamental whims of its star, Jenny Cadine (Elizabeth Shue), who has all Paris at her feet. Bette has a plan, however. Gradually, subtly, she plots the Hulots' ultimate destruction. With Jenny's help, she accomplishes this, and is left to a lonely, but financially secure, future.
Lange at first seems primed to deliver a bang-up performance. Always at her best in roles that call for a touch of the demonic, she definitely looks the part with her severe, plate-smooth hairstyle and unrelievedly sober gowns: an angry Ingres woman. Unfortunately, for this tricky anti-heroine, she greatly needed a director to shape her performance, which is singularly lacking in either a cohesive throughline or compelling dramatic arc. She disconcertingly speaks in about four different vocal ranges at varying times and, when she finally lets loose the floodgates of her pent-up passion, McAnuff demurely cuts away. One can only rue the missed opportunity of what should have been a classic portrayal.
To Lange's credit, however, even at her most uncertain, she seems to be at all times acting in a different, far superior film than her really floundering fellow actors. Shue is like a lesser Sharon Stone, and even more relentlessly modern. As a supposedly devastating chanteuse, she warbles some ridiculous ditties re 'la folie d'amour' in a repellently flat voice and, for a real kicker, turns her insouciantly bare bottom to the audience, thrice. The rest of the cast performs with like ineptitude; a more unalluring bunch would be hard to imagine. Laurie is the most tiresome old priss in a role that begs for the rou charm of Charles Boyer. Young is a pouty, ill-tempered cherub, and you feel not an ounce of sympathy when he goes down with the hapless Hulots. Macdonald is unappetizingly snippy, and even Bob Hoskins makes a buffoon of himself as a honey old goat. The film's single claim to artistry is the costuming of the ever-accomplished, seemingly tireless Gabriella Pescucci (with the glaring exception of Shue's Vegas-y cabaret get-ups). Rarely have actors been so exquisitely outfitted and then required to behave so oafishly.