Cousin Bette (1971)

“Learn to profit from your miseries.”

Set in 19th century France, the BBC miniseries Cousin Bette is the tale of a bitter spinster, the poor relation of the wealthy and powerful Hulot family. Based on the novel by Balzac, the film follows the novel fairly faithfully, and the result is an intense study of corruption, deceit, revenge and human greed.

When the film begins, plain spinster, Cousin Bette (Margaret Tyzack) is dependent on the charity of her wealthy relations. Consequently, she makes herself ‘useful’ to them but secretly she despises them all. She particularly loathes her cousin, the elegant attractive Adeline Hulot (Ursula Howells). Bette and Adeline grew up together, but whereas Adeline made an important match and moves in the best parts of society, Betty is relegated to the questionable position of poor relation. She’s not quite a servant, but she’s certainly not an equal. Receiving handouts and cast-off clothing, the Hulots imagine that Bette is grateful, but in reality, she’s resentful.

Bette’s resentment of the Hulot family turns to hatred and a thirst for revenge through her relationship with impoverished Polish exile Count Wenceslas Steinbock (Colin Baker). Bette saves Steinbock from a suicide attempt, and furnishes him with the necessary money to fund his budding career as a sculptor. Although ostensibly there is no romantic relationship between Bette and Steinbock, she nurses some rather twisted feelings for him. Controlling and domineering, Bette doesn’t hesitate to remind Steinbock how much he owes her. There’s an irony to this. While Bette secretly desires more from the relationship, fundamentally, all she can express is the sum of Steinbock’s debt in francs and sous. And so that’s exactly how he treats her–as a debtor he wants off his back.

While Bette keeps Steinbock as a sort of pet, she can’t help bragging about her new friend to the Hulots. Suddenly her life is interesting and she has something to capture the interest of an audience. But unbeknownst to Bette, Hortense (Harriet Harper) Adeline’s daughter seeks out Steinbock, and falls in love. A marriage is arranged–all behind Bette’s back but with the full participation of the entire Hulot family.

It is this act–Steinbock’s engagement to Hortense–that turns Bette from simmering resentment of the Hulots to a full-fledged plan of revenge. To her, the Hulots have deprived her of the one thing she cared for, and now they must pay.

Exactly how Bette carries out her vicious revenge is the meat of this riveting mini-series. By understanding human nature and possessing a ready ability to exploit weaknesses, Bette creates a trap that the Hulot family falls into. A key element of the revenge is the Baron Hulot’s uncontrollable appetite for extravagant young mistresses. Bette exploits Baron Hulot’s vice in close partnership with the avaricious wife of a petty government official, Madame Marneffe (played by a young Helen Mirren).

The film is at its very best when portraying the symbiotic relationship between Madame Marneffe and Bette. These women each have their own separate ambitions, but when they team up to loot the Hulots, they form a powerful, malicious alliance. The camera catches each subtle nuance, each facial expression as this delicious drama ensues. This 2-disc DVD set is composed of five parts, and while the conclusion was a little disappointing, overall it did not detract from this fine adaptation. Margaret Tyzack delivers a fine performance as the plain spinster whose loveless existence covers a morass of vindictive hatred. Helen Mirren is also excellent as the perfectly amoral Madame Marneffe–a woman who juggles lovers quite superbly. This adaptation directed by Gareth Davies conveys the hypocrisy and corruption of the times, and while the Hulots and their upper class friends move in a society which hands out favours, titles, and commissions, the second tier of society–the Marneffes and the Cousin Bettes of this Balzacian world–attempt to manipulate a way in which to carve themselves a bigger piece of the pie. DVD extras: a bio of Balzac and cast filmographies. Excellent!

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