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Contemporary Hollywood, hungry as it is for some photogenic literary period piece of solid pedigree, has finally gotten around to Honoré de Balzac’s class-conscious French farces. Balzac’s sturdy working-man’s heart and lively narrative sense make for timeless retelling; his themes and attitudes are both entertaining and, in their broad way, understandable (if not entirely realistic).

Cousin Bette has the coquettish timing and unsubtle humor of a sitcom and the twisting high drama of a soap opera, all of it as overstuffed and ornate as the prevailing fashion of 1846 Paris. Like the music-hall starlet around whom much of the film’s action swirls, it is a comely and temporarily convincing trifle that is artistically negligible and none too serious in any other way. Grim-faced and plainly dressed, Jessica Lange plays the title role, a matronly spinster who was passed over in favor of her beautiful cousin Adeline Hulot (Geraldine Chaplin). Adeline dies and entrusts mousy, hard-working Bette with the future of her family: her aging-dandy baron husband, Hector (Hugh Laurie), worrywart son Victorin (Toby Stephens), and Hortense (Kelly Macdonald), a pretty, marriageable teen.

If the once-great Hulot’s money troubles and the brewing uprising in the streets aren’t enough, two shining apples of discord also enter the picture: the luscious singer Jenny Cadine (Elisabeth Shue) and the penniless, pouty-lipped sculptor Wenceslas (Aden Young). All the pieces are in place for a naughty romp—the Hulot women are in love with the same man, and all the men in Paris are in love with the same woman. It is inevitable that the two desirables themselves fall in love and that tragedy tread on the heels of farce.

Bette begins the film looking like the woman disappointed in love who substitutes cold manipulation for genuine human contact. She saves Wenceslas’ life when he’s suicidal and near starvation—the second allusion to “The Death of Chatterton” in film this year; what’s going on?—and makes an effort to get Hortense married off to someone, anyone, hideous and rich. One of these would-be suitors is the mayor of Paris, the crass perfumer Crevel (Bob Hoskins, wearing more makeup than Jessica Lange). Crevel isn’t a beast, although he offers the aristocratic youngster 100,000 francs for a glimpse of her nude and whines before a duel with Hector, “I’m half your size.” Unlike the men of fading fortunes around him (including the impoverished sculptor, who is what’s left of a count), Crevel is an honest new breed of vulgarian—free with his money, a sensualist, more interested in honor than keeping up appearances.

While Bette schemes to enslave Wenceslas’ heart, Crevel plots to move in on Jenny, who is being kept in high style by the deeply indebted Baron Hulot. Underhanded machinations must run in the family, at least the female side, because Hortense is also trying to snatch the sculptor out from under Bette’s iron fist. Bette grows more manipulative and more openly evil as the film progresses and the couples change partners, spurred sometimes by love but more often by cash. Wenceslas and Hortense finally marry, and Bette loses her sense entirely, showing up at the wedding to glower in her black dress and stalk the happy couple like Erica Kane in a corset. Many things are entrusted to this madwoman, whose thunderlike mien and ominous serenity would be a dead giveaway in any modern horror movie; nevertheless, she’s handed babies, fragile teacups, and bags of cash, none of which profit from her proprietorship.

Amid all the bed-hopping, it becomes clear that Bette is more passionate and driven by love than any of the young lusties or old rogues chasing each other around—she is completely in its grip, unable to make a move that doesn’t either benefit her monstrous vanity or trip up someone else’s good time. She uses the two most powerful weapons available—Wenceslas, whose roguish allure got her into this mess, and Jenny, a typically Balzacian heroine, all animal instinct and golden haunches.

Lange is extraordinary in this role, Bette’s repression not quite complete enough to smother the bits of lust and egotism that seep out of the corners. But Cousin Bette is a difficult character in a simple movie. No one else has as large a task: Comedian Laurie plays the harumphing old roué as any vaudevillian might; Young’s Wenceslas is very good but must be in thrall to a series of string-pulling women throughout the film; and Kelly Macdonald may suffer from Kate Winslet comparisons if she continues to do period roles—she has Winslet’s carved lips and pallor, and her lip-smacking way with vowels.

Cousin Bette doesn’t pretend to complexity, but it is more air-headed than it needs to be for something so pretty and narratively solid. Jenny’s stage performances descend morally as Bette’s machinations spin out of control; she first appears as a naive, buttock-baring angel, then as a tigress in a flaming circle, and then as a (buttock-baring; it becomes her trademark) demon. Broad humor and bedroom farce exist side by side with Balzac’s absurd theories on the carnal nature of Woman (the stench of which two female screenwriters, Lynn Siefert and Susan Tarr, couldn’t air out), and Bette is so openly (and modernly) psychotic by the end of the film it’s a wonder the Hulots haven’t had her locked up, let alone that they trust her as much as they ever did before Adeline’s death.

But despite the silliness—Cousin Bette is a very silly movie, which is rather refreshing for something so sumptuously petticoated—the film has moments of humor and gentleness that bring out the script’s moral highlights. Balzac, the blazing moralist of La Comédie Humaine, saw the good in no one; he mocked the patriarchs of dwindling fortune as buffoons tricked by fate, and viewed women as schemers and lust-driven harpies. But Siefert and Tarr’s script has a core of humanity that gives the farce a tender edge and deepens the shadows of the tragic elements. Between the witty dialogue and Lange’s undercurrent of wild emotion, Cousin Bette has sparkling moments, like when Hortense offhandedly scatters a group of ragtag urchins assaulting her father or when the increasingly desperate Bette pleads with Jenny not to leave Paris to set up a simple farm life with Wenceslas. “You can’t even open a jar,” she cries. Like a French Scarlett O’Hara, Jenny sets her jaw. “I’ll learn.”CP