FilmScene — opens Friday, June 30
This Friday, June 30, Sofia Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, premieres at Film Scene. Tickets are $6.50-9. Though The Beguiled is set nearly a century after Coppola’s gorgeous period piece Marie Antoinette the two films share quite a bit of connective tissue: lush cinematography, stellar performances by Kirsten Dunst and a peaceful, privileged setting nestled in the midst of great social unrest. In both films, the focus is on the sheltered lives of its central characters, while the turmoil of the French Revolution and of the Civil War, respectively, are little more than topics of gossip or the booms of distant cannon blasts.
What sets The Beguiled apart from Marie Antoinette, and much of Coppola’s canon, is the way each scene feels like an animated photograph, a sequence caught in amber. This snapshot feel makes the shocking events which play out in the film seem both uncomfortably voyeuristic and, ultimately, inevitable.
The Beguiled begins with a young girl walking along a road bordered by an allée of trees draped in Spanish moss. Sunlight filters in through the green canopy and makes for a beautiful, if slightly eerie, morning. The girl, Amy (Oona Laurence), is out picking mushrooms but ends up stumbling across a wounded Union soldier, John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Through conversation it’s revealed that Amy is a student at a nearby boarding school and had a brother who died fighting for the Confederacy. Amy helps McBurney back to the school, run by the frighteningly stoic Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and populated by her four classmates and their teacher, Miss Edwina (Dunst).
While the women all initially express concern over McBurney’s Northern, masculine presence, they each soon, to varying degrees, become enamored with him. The wall of Southern manners and mores quickly crumbles, and feelings of lust, jealousy and confusion emerge—all stoked by the manipulative McBurney. Though it starts off peacefully, it soon becomes clear this complicated situation will not end well—which is an understatement, to say the least.
The Beguiled started as a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan titled A Painted Devil. A few years later, Clint Eastwood and Don Siegel turned Cullinan’s novel into a film, also called The Beguiled. Siegel’s film differs wildly from Coppola’s in a few key aspects: First, Eastwood’s McBurney is immediately monstrous: After literally falling on a twelve year old Amy, he kisses her passionately on the mouth to prevent her from revealing him to a group of nearby Confederate soldiers. (Farrel’s McBurney is laying on the ground in a prone position when Amy comes across him.)
The second major difference between the two films is the presence of a slave in Siegel’s version: Hallie (Mae Mercer), who is important to the film’s plot and acknowledges the presence of slavery in Southern society. In Coppola’s version, Amy briefly mentions that all the slaves “ran-off” at some point. End of discussion. This erasure has bothered a number of critics.
The final major difference between the two versions is the nature of the film itself. Siegel’s film starts out as steamy exploitation and morphs into an unsettling horror film. Coppola’s film feels much more organic and complicated. Eastwood’s McBurney is pure disruption and he becomes chaos incarnate in the lives of those at the school. Farrell’s McBurney actually tries for a time to fit in, and scenes of him doing chores and of the girls perking-up due to his presence hint at a potential, less deadly, conclusion.
What really makes Coppola’s film stand out from Siegel’s, though, are the performances, particularly those of Kidman and Dunst who subtly create complex, three-dimensional female characters living in an era when the very notion of female agency was an anachronism. Siegel’s film ultimately amounts to little more than a cinematic representation of the adage “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Coppola shows women damaged as much by the repression of Southern society as by the war itself.
A scene in which one of the young girls is forced into an unnecessary corset, simply for purposes of etiquette, is quite telling. In another, a staid French lesson is punctuated by the sounds of a destructive battle which leads to black smoke rising up over the horizon. If the characters were ever able to be direct with one another about their true feelings toward McBurney it would have not only subverted his manipulations but also averted the terrible events to come. Unfortunately, as Coppola makes so clear, the social and sexual repression of the day made directness as verboten as the notion that women should ever feel desire or wish for autonomy. In this way, though the characters speak only in terms of North and South, Coppola makes clear that the real civil war was—and is—being waged between men and women.
This new take on The Beguiled is an imperfect film. The story is somewhat slow to develop and the decision to refuse to discuss race, especially within a post-antebellum South setting, is problematic. That said, Coppola’s film is worth watching for film buffs and historical drama lovers alike. Across the board the performances are excellent and the cinematography is breathtaking. Mostly though, given our current nostalgic political climate, The Beguiled serves as a crucial reminder of the dangers inherent in glossing over repressed voices in order to glorify a bygone era. In 2017, one would be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful, complex and shocking take on the ongoing battle of the sexes than The Beguiled.