Cousin Bette (Lange) is a poor seamstress overlooked by her family and without any real social standing. When she is rejected by her family once too often, she formulates a plan of revenge.
Based on the novel by Balzac and set against the colourful backdrop of pre-Revolutionary Paris, Cousin Bette tells of an aristocratic family brought to its knees by the devious manipulations of its poor relation (Lange in the titular role).
Sacrificed since her youth for the advancement of her prettier cousin Adeline (Geraldine Chaplin), and mocked by all and sundry for her drab appearance and unmarried state, Bette works as dressmaker at the Theatre Des Varietes, specifically for the darling of the Parisian stage, Jenny Cadine (Shue). Bette's lot briefly improves when she saves the life of starving sculptor Wenceslas (Aden Young), whom she befriends and reinvents in her mind as her lover, but it's not long before she is let down and deceived again - by him and her family. After so much provocation, so many years of being pushed aside and mocked for what she has become, Bette decides on a complex plot of revenge over everyone who has hurt her, working them all against each other until they destroy themselves.
Lange is outstanding as Bette, a clever, conscience-free monster with the face of an angel, one whom we applaud even as she crushes the life out of her victims. And Shue has as much if not more fun as the irresistible and vivacious courtesan whose stage performances are enhanced by the occasional flash of her buttocks, and who gets to roll around in bed with the handsome Young, covered in chocolate and cream. Delicious.
Though perhaps starting a tad slowly, once Bette starts her scheming, the film moves along at a cracking pace, packing a host of horrendous characters into a sumptuous dish of exquisite malice.