Nihilism has been a feature of our culture for a while: this past weekend, I saw Cruel Intentions, a 1999 film which drove the point home.
This film recasts the 18th century French novel, “Les Liaisons dangereuses” (by Pierre Choderos de Laclos) in a modern setting. Perhaps predictably, the film is set among the superwealthy in New York, and shows the young as amoral, sexually impulsive and overwhelmingly cynical. Cruel Intentions is not quite as amoral as the original; there are redemptive themes of love and genuine sacrifice. However it is worth noting that 18th century France was a regime in its death throes; the world was coming to an end, and the nobility, as shown by Laclos, was apparently more interested in petty intrigues than in trying to prevent catastrophe.
The film may well have been a small symptom of a civilisational crisis in the making, a Freudian subconscious message of decadence, immorality and decline.
The makers of the film intensified the nihilistic theme by inserting the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” in a lengthy scene at the end in which the corruption of one of the major characters is revealed. In some ways, the entire film is reminiscent of a statement from the French film La Haine, in which a character states that while falling, an individual reassures themselves that they’re all right, and does so until they hit the ground. The characters in Cruel Intentions are introduced just before they hit bottom; we see them trying to bundle the reassurance of trivia around themselves as the dive into oblivion is completed.
Indeed, the Verve may have captured the essence of this “shattering at the perigee” with their music. As Bittersweet Symphony tells us:
‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life
Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die
I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down
You know the one that takes you to the places where all the veins meet, yeah
No change, I can’t change, I can’t change, I can’t change,
but I’m here in my mold , I am here in my mold
But I’m a million different people from one day to the next
I can’t change my mold, no, no, no, no, no
The Verve also are noted for similar anthems such as “The Drugs Don’t Work”, part of their Urban Hymns album, which was first released 1997. Overall, it is definitely peculiar how the film and the album match the spirit of our present times equally as well as the mood of a decade ago.