When called to the deathbed of her adored, aristocratic cousin, Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin), Bette (Jessica Lange) looks every bit the grim, dowdy spinster. Adeline asks the ever-faithful Bette to look after her family, and Lange makes her reply -- "I promise I'll take care of them all" -- with a curl of the lip that suggests a juicy tale of revenge served with relish. But little in Cousin Bette, adapted from Honoré de Balzac's 1846 novel by playwright Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr, comes without a price.
Set in Paris during the years leading up to the French Revolution, Cousin Bette finds the aristocracy in alarming disarray. Baron Hector Hulot (Hugh Laurie) is spending what little funds the family has left on the pursuit of Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue), a much-admired chanteuse whose talent lies less in her voice than her flagrant sexual exhibitionism (a joke that might have been funnier if the audience weren't subjected to so much of Shue's tuneless singing).
Hector's immensely spoiled and self-centered daughter, Hortense (Kelly Macdonald), rejects the advances of the wealthy Mayor Crevel (Bob Hoskins), instead luring the sculptor and penniless Polish count, Wenceslas (Aden Young), away from his love-struck patroness, Bette.
While working as a seamstress creating Jenny's racy costumes, Bette befriends the noted seducer and elicits her aid in driving a wedge between Hortense and Wenceslas. But as Bette methodically "takes care" of the family, she finds she can't control the one emotion she has never elicited: romantic passion.
Des McAnuff, a theatrical director making his feature film debut, has an excellent eye for the telling detail and has fashioned Cousin Bette as both a lavish, grand period melodrama and a bawdy, biting comedy of manners.
Shue is the weak link in an otherwise excellent ensemble cast, all the more remarkable considering each character is immensely self-involved. The location shooting in Bordeaux also lends a needed gravity to an otherwise frothy tale.
"Oh, you bad seed that refused to blossom," an elderly relative chidingly tells the old maid Bette. But she does indeed bloom, into a hardy, poisonous flower.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.