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IN SHORT: Two hours feels like three.
There's no doubt about it, Honore De Balzac stuffed his novel full to the bursting point with crisscrossing storylines and an ever growing sequence of revenges that bring only bitter doom. In other words, everything that was probably in the book has been jammed into this almost impossible to follow adaptation. All the money spent on recreating the "look" of 1846 Paris, just prior to the Napoleonic Wars, does no good when the screenplay is as poorly designed as this one. Trying to summarize the story, just to show you what went wrong where, is tough enough.
Simply, this is the story of two cousins, one of whom does us the mercy of dying immediately after the opening credits. Left behind is Cousin Bette (Jessica Lange) who has promised to watch over her family -- Hortense (Kelly Macdonald) a young and very eligible beauty and her philandering father, the now widower Hector (Hugh Laurie). Bette, apparently, has been in heat for her male cousin all along, for when he asks her to run the household as housekeeper, but not his wife, she feels humiliated. Leaving the mansion for a decrepit residential hotel and job as seamstress for popular actress Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue). Said actress makes a pretty penny on the side indulging all the fiftysomething and older royalty of Paris, including a long smitten Hector and his good friend the Lord Mayor (Bob Hoskins). Bette and Jenny become friendly, but Bette has other things on her mind than friendship.
Untouched and unloved and desperately needing a fantasy to make her wretched life worth living, Bette comes up with another fantasy man. His name is Wenceslas (Aden Young), the starving sculptor who lives upstairs and robs Bette's rat traps of cheese to survive. Deciding to use what little money she has to finance his career, Bette (essentially) tries to buy his love. Young Hortense, is either smitten by the sculptor or is just a real nasty girl, I'm not sure, and decides to take the man away from Bette.
So that's the scorecard: Bette wants revenge against Hector because Hector did not propose; against Jenny because she's beautiful and Hector wants her; against Hortense for stealing the only fantasy she's got. That's on top of the embezzlements, grand theft, betrayals, affairs, loansharking, murder, and the occasional flash of the very lovely pair of Ms. Shue's buttocks also in the flick. He incredibly elaborate and intricate plan of revenge (Bette did, after all, promise to "take care of them all") will destroy the family, send the servants to unemployment and lead to the French Revolution.
If it had kept to the basics Cousin Bette could have been a heck of a lot more enjoyable. Instead, so many lines are cast out to lay the revenge that you will be exhausted just trying to keep them from getting tangled. By the time it all comes together and a surprising ultimate price is paid by one of the characters, you'll find no satisfaction in it.
Ultimate price. OK, I've spilled it. I won't tell you who, only that it's a pretty good surprise. As for everything else, the movie's design is gorgeous. So are the costumes and sets.
A classic of literature "Cousin Bette" may have been, but it was never on my high school or college reading lists and the constant assault by new, fairly inconsequential stories or character observations was way too much. The story is not as sharp as a period piece like this has to be. We don't think the way French Royals did prior to (their) revolution. Indeed, I'd guess that most of us Yanks wouldn't have the slightest clue as to what the corruption of the French upper classes and the brewing revolt in the streets was really about, short of "let them eat cake". This is the reason that videotape was invented. You can go back and analyze and watch it again and again until you get it all figured out. You can do it for far less than the price of a first run movie ticket.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cousin Bette, he would have paid . . .
True, the rental level is a buck higher. When you finally think Cousin Bette is over, another scene shows up. It's supposed to be a comic epilog, but it had the other reviewers and critics sitting around me (yep, this is one of those times Cranky sat in the really comfortable private screening room seats) groaning.
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