First E.M. Forster, then Jane Austen, and now Honore de Balzac? I don't think so. While the lusty adaptations of the 19th-century novels of the two former late authors gave contemporary costume-dramas a run for their money in recent years, it's doubtful that this lackluster mounting of "Cousin Bette" will inspire a similar stampede for the venerable works of Balzac..
Poor Bette. As a young woman, she lost her true love to her much prettier, and more importantly much richer, cousin Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin). But as the film opens and Adeline lays dying, the forty-something Bette (Jessica Lange) hopes to at last become the wife of Baron Hector Hulot (Hugh Laurie). Alas, the only thing Hector, who already has a mistress in Parisian burlesque queen Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue), has in mind for plain-Jane Bette is for her to become his housekeeper and help raise his daughter, Hortense (Kelly Macdonald).
Relegated back to her Parisian hovel, Bette befriends and acts as a benefactor to Wenceslas (Aden Young), a starving artist 15 years her junior. Convinced that she has finally ensnared love, Bette confides in Hortense only to have Hortense seek out and woo the young artist. On the wedding day of Wenceslas and Hortense, Bette hatches a scheme to wreak havoc on all those who have betrayed her.
Screenwriters Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr have liberally adapted the Balzac novel to try to appeal to contemporary sensibilities, but the frequent use of modern-day expletives often has a jarring effect. More importantly, they fail to create a character for whom we can have much sympathy, leaving us to regard the vengeful Bette as little more than a bitter old maid. Lange also has a hard time animating her spiteful character; she relies heavily on a blank stare to convey the character's deep pain.
None of the international cast, including Bob Hoskins, attempt anything approximating a French accent, so Lange's lilting Southern drawl, Shue's California cool and Macdonald's Brit clip collide in a mishmash of dialects, making it hard to believe these characters are in the same country, let alone the same century.
The most flagrant casting faux pas is Shue (nominated for an Academy Award for "Leaving Las Vegas"), starring as the French courtesan in a role that amounts to a 19-century girlie show. Shue is totally out of place: Her gym-toned body lacks the fleshy curves of the women of the period and her musical numbers, of which she has several too many, suggest screaming rather than singing.
Director of photography Andrzej Sekula and production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski provide plenty of visual splendor, but director Des McAnuff wastes much of it. In his virgin cinematic effort, McAnuff, director of the Broadway hits "Big River" and "Tommy," fails to create onscreen what he has done for the stage. In fact, many of the scenes have an incredibly stagy feel, lacking any sense of realism.
In the end, what should have been a biting dark comedy comes off as just boring.