Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, fresh off of its Cannes World Premiere in May (where it deservedly won the Best Director prize), opens in Chicago theaters this Friday. It is a smart example of counter-programming on behalf of distributor Focus Features: viewers looking for an alternative to mindless summer blockbuster fare can do no better than to check out this visually sumptuous and surprisingly funny Civil War-era melodrama, which boasts a raft of great performances (from a cast that includes Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning) as well as enough provocative commentary on gender relations to ensure heated post-screening discussions; along with all of its other virtues, The Beguiled should prove to be a hell of a date movie.
Based on a novel by Thomas Cullinen that was previously adapted by the director/star team of Don Siegel and Clint Eastwood, Coppola’s film offers a refreshingly feminized take on a story that has long cried out for it: in 1864 Virginia, a wounded Union soldier (Farrell) is given reluctant sanctuary by the headmistress (Kidman) of an all-girls school. As he convalesces, the soldier insidiously sows mischief and jealousy in the hearts of everyone with whom he comes into contact: not only the headmistress but also a teacher (Dunst) as well as the students. The movie begins with Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the youngest pupils, picking mushrooms beneath moss-strewn trees while humming the song “Lorena,” a Civil War ballad whose melody also features in the opening of John Ford’s immortal The Searchers. This seems to be Coppola’s way of announcing that her film will take place within certain American narrative filmmaking traditions, which, over the course of a breezy 94 minutes, she then subtly and cleverly works to overturn. Her Beguiled, in fact, pointedly becomes an anti-western – taking place almost entirely in dimly lit interiors (gorgeously photographed by Philippe Le Sourd), where the war is represented only by the muffled sounds of distant canon fire, and focusing mostly on the intimate lives of her female characters.
Don Siegel’s excellent 1971 film version is a more erotic and disturbing horror show, centered as it is on a subversive interrogation of Clint Eastwood’s macho star persona. Sofia Coppola, being a very different kind of filmmaker (more sensorial and less interested in overt character psychology), wisely chooses to both eliminate “back story” and to make Farrell’s soldier more passive and even cowardly; this Irish immigrant, who took the place of a conscripted soldier for a $300 payout and desperately wants to avoid returning to the battlefield, does the bare minimum necessary to seduce the women and girls around him. He is little more than a slab of male flesh onto which these sheltered female characters inevitably project their romantic and sexual longings. The Beguiled is ultimately a film about the way these young women look at this young man, and there is a visual mastery at work in the way Coppola coordinates the gazes of her fine actresses that surpasses anything she has done before. In the young women’s attempts to one-up each other and jockey for favorable position with the soldier, Coppola also taps a surprisingly rich vein of dark comedy; this is nowhere more apparent than in the crack comic timing (physical as well as verbal) of the precocious Alicia, the student played by Elle Fanning, a terrific young actress who steals every scene she is in.