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FW Weekly Cousin Bette

By Joe Leydon

JULY 6, 1998:  Jessica Lange glides purposefully through Cousin Bette as an unforgiving wraith with mischief on her mind, vengeance in her heart and a deceptively sweet smile on her tightly pursed lips. Appearing as severe in her black-on-black outfits as the ever-looming Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca, she is ferociously effective as the title character in this handsomely produced but disappointingly flat-footed adaptation of the classic novel by Honore de Balzac. The movie could have used a great deal more of the verve that Lange brings to her performance. But, then again, perhaps it is only fitting that she so completely dominates everything and everyone around her.

Cousin Bette is set in Paris during the mid-1840s, as ominous signs of the upcoming revolution are becoming increasingly apparent. Like the folks who will soon man the barricades, Bette is fueled by a gnawing desire to settle scores. Years earlier, her family decided that, given their limited resources, they could groom only one girl to capture a wealthy husband. Unfortunately, Bette wasn't that girl. Instead, her beautiful cousin (Geraldine Chaplin in a brief cameo) got to grab the brass ring by marrying Baron Hector Hulot (Hugh Laurie). When her cousin dies, Bette expects to marry the widowed nobleman. But instead of proposing, Baron Hulot - a lecherous wastrel who's on the verge of bankrupting his noble family - offers her a job as housekeeper.

Bette refuses the humiliating post, and continues to work as a seamstress at a music hall where the saucy Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue) - who counts the baron among her many gentleman callers - is the star attraction. Briefly, Bette falls for the much younger Wesceslas (Aden Young), a penniless sculptor who lives above her in a shabby rooming house. But Wesceslas is drawn to Hortense (Kelly Macdonald), the baron's beautiful daughter, who doesn't think twice about stealing the hunk from her lovestruck cousin. Like just about everyone else in the movie, Hortese pays dearly for crossing Bette.

No doubt about it: Bette takes unholy delight in plotting against her enemies. But while she is the one who brings out the worst in them, these selfish and self-deluding fools bring about their own misfortune. All it takes is a little push to set them on the path to destruction. Cousin Bette lacks subtlety and grace under Des McAnuff's uninspired direction, but the movie is enjoyably generous when it comes to serving just desserts.

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