Though not a film within her evocative filmography is uninteresting, The Beguiled (2017) is the radical departure writer/director Sofia Coppola needed.
In her two decades of working, her filmmaking career memorably beginning with 1999’s haunting The Virgin Suicides, Coppola’s films have remained thematically and stylistically similar. Usually starring an individual suffering from ennui, with a specific visual style and sardonic, dry sense of humor roaming the premises, her movies have, in a way, conjoined to make a grand statement regarding Coppola’s sensibilities and overarching cinematic identity.
Who we have is a filmmaker fascinated by the dissatisfaction and loneliness that can arise in even the most seemingly idyllic of lives. The teenage victims of The Virgin Suicides were the most popular, beautiful girls in school, but were secretly rotting inside. The protagonists of Lost in Translation (2003), one a successful actor and the other the young, affluent wife of a director, felt trapped under their remarkable circumstances. Marie Antoinette (2006) uncovered the eponymous queen’s tumultuous inner life; Somewhere (2010) decided that you can have it all and still be the loneliest person in the world. Her last film, 2013’s The Bling Ring, closely watched the rise and fall of materialistic youths who thought cutting corners to get to the top would last.
A similar sort of isolation burgeons in The Beguiled. But gone are the traces of fashion magazine style, of the use of silence as a medium to convey angst. Coppola, adapting the 1966 novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan and succeeding the 1971 version directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, pushes herself away from her dependence on style and more headily taps into the tense, erotically-charged storyline as means to drive the film. Resulting is a provocative but not entirely successful psychological thriller.
Visually, the film is striking. It’s set in a sprawling manor, smack dab in the middle of nowhere in the Deep South. It’s the height of the Civil War, soldiers often crossing paths with the grounds. Fog incessantly rolls over the boggy region, the humidity, dank and hot, nearly pushing past the screen separating us and the movie’s characters. The house is surrounded by a thicket of woods and overgrown greens, heightening claustrophobia. Centering the estate is a steepened spiral staircase, encircled by wax candles, crystal chandeliers, ivory white walls. Light is minimal. Those who live on the property — itself a girl’s school — are easy identifiable by their frizzy hair and their lacy garments.
But The Beguiled is more successful aesthetically than it is structurally. Coppola is more interesting a filmmaker when there’s a juxtaposition between the artistically maximal and the intrinsic minimal. She’s so adept at capturing despair through prolonged periods of silence that The Beguiled, essentially a horror movie, doesn’t so easily mesh simply because it is so plot driven. Coppola is a director better equipped for atmospheric, emotionally understated filmmaking.
One does not want to say that it is inferior to the 1971 adaptation, considering there are characteristics about the latter we wish were in the 2017 adaptation and vice versa. Namely the 1971 rendition’s tangible building of tension, its more complex anti-hero, and its more visceral handling of the finale. Just moments after the film commences is it evident that something terrible is going to happen.
But Coppola’s vision is much more fanciful than Siegel’s, indulging more in the carnality of the material and putting more emphasis on material pleasures, like the silkiness of ballgowns or the ghostly glow of a candelabra. It is also more female, more dramatically handling a chilling ending that sees repressed women conquering a man who might overpower them in another time and in another place.
We just wish hers were more explosive — everything is too inevitable, too neat.
The story remains the same. Set in 1864, it revolves around the dramas endured by a Southern, all-girl boarding school after a wounded Union mercenary, John McBurney (Colin Farrell), is rescued by a young student (Oona Laurence). Because most have gone home for the summer, only a few young girls (Elle Fanning, Angourie Rice) remain, with the house’s primary teacher, Edwina (an excellent Kirsten Dunst), and headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), presiding. McBurney’s entrance marks something major, as these women are all, individually, washed over with school-girl crushes, sexual awakenings, or old-fashioned lust when in his presence. After he turns out to be the not-so perfect man, then, all hell breaks loose.
Because such a storyline is rather novel, important is that it be dealt with with the intensity of a slow-burning thriller. To snap from a corporeal tale of sexual oppression uncovered to a bona fide horror movie concocted courtesy of the male fantasy, the transition must not be obvious. And if it is obvious, it must at least be feasible.
The Beguiled, though, goes from zero to 60 so unbelievably quickly it does not necessarily convince. McBurney is transformed from saint to villain too operatically to really persuade (even though he does have a good reason to become suddenly monstrous), and the women orbiting around him seem inexplicably hysterical.
Coppola does everything right. We can understand why these characters do the things they do, and why they come to such conclusions and act on their misconstrued ideas. But there’s a lacking of a visceral reaction that places slight doubt over the proceedings.
In the 1971 version, we felt these women were deservedly pissed about what happened to them, and that McBurney’s tragic fate was more or less karma making an appearance to Clorox wipe the mess made by his womanizing. The women, except for the constantly trampled-over Edwina, were slightly unhinged, though they would never show us outright. McBurney was despicable, but not so exaggeratively so that we would go without sympathizing him in certain moments. It also helped that Miss Farnsworth was played by a note-perfect Geraldine Page, and that McBurney was portrayed by a pre-Dirty Harry Eastwood playing against type (therefore making him an infinitely more interesting a quasi-antagonist).
But in Coppola’s adaptation, there’s a mismatch. In many regards do we feel as though things could have been worked out, in lieu all the unforgivable wrongs resting between these individuals.
That atmosphere was nowhere to be found in Siegel’s account. It felt very much like a psychological horror show, as though McBurney thought he could continue his immoral ways but unfortunately managed to pick a hell house to enact his various evils. Coppola’s rendering is an entanglement of misunderstandings that merely went too far. Farrell too ferociously snaps; Kidman’s characterization, though sturdy, doesn’t have that slight touch of rabidness always underlying Page’s remarkably detailed portrayal.
But Coppola exceptionally captures the sexuality of the women. A moment toward the beginning of the film finds Miss Farnsworth sponge-bathing McBurney while he’s unconscious, and we can palpably feel her locked-away libido demanding to break free from its chest. Enough shots noting Edwina staring longingly at nothing effectively translate that this woman cannot bear to be this lonely for much longer. Alicia, played with fitting brattiness by Fanning, harnesses the false sense of womanhood a teenage girl might experience once she reaches an age where she can recognize her sexual attitudes. The little girls all act like snot-noses competing for their father’s attention. That wasn’t always as delicately captured in Siegel’s interpretation, as the director was more intent on seeing these characters as villains.
Still, 2017’s The Beguiled doesn’t tremble with the quiet ferocity of its 46-year-old counterpart. It’s cinematically and conceptually stunning, but it’s missing the emotional rawness — not to mention the terrifying instances of emotional extremity — that might make it an otherwise impactful thriller.
But for Coppola, it’s a step in the right direction. We know what she’s capable of, and The Beguiled allows her to explore territories uncharted. Even when working under vastly unfamiliar conditions, sometimes unsuccessfully, she remains one of her generation’s most exciting talents. If The Beguiled is more admirable than it is enjoyable, that’s excusable. Watching a maestro challenge themselves is a riveting event in itself.