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.
JM: This is being written just a few hours after seeing Sofia Coppola’s movie, The Bling Ring. Thinking back over those few hours and over her entire body of work, I am noticing recurring themes that thread throughout all of her films that draw me to her as a writer and director. These are namely the music, and the humanity and universal appeal of the stories and characters. I’d like to start off by discussing the latter. In all of Sofia’s films (see complete filmography at the end of this piece), she taps into experiences and emotions that are universal to everyone, even if the character may be more grandiose than the typical person. For example, in Marie Antoinette, you can identify with the queen’s feelings of separation, loneliness, and weight of responsibility. In The Bling Ring, she demonstrates how in American culture, there is a lust to be “known” and to do this, it is necessary to shroud yourself in tangible consumerism. Are there any films of hers that you feel any special kinship towards?
MGS: I think I feel more of a kinship to The Bling Ring than any of the others, for reasons I will elaborate on later. But first, I want to point out that I think it’s interesting you say Coppola’s films are “universal” while paradoxically also being about characters who may be “grandiose.” I generally agree with this but the most common complaint that I’ve heard about her work is that she only deals with the problems of people who are privileged. In other words, “Why should we care that a rich movie star staying at a five-star hotel in Tokyo feels ‘alienated’?” My response to this is “Why shouldn’t we be able to relate to characters just because they happen to be rich and famous?” The Virgin Suicides is, I believe, the only film she’s made that isn’t about upper class characters. But, as everyone knows, she grew up the daughter of a famous filmmaker, so I think she is depicting in her movies a world that she knows very well and I think her insider’s P.O.V is both knowing and, more importantly, critical. And you’re right — I think she bends over backwards in Marie Antoinette, for instance, to try and make the heroine seem like a “typical” teenage girl so that young people watching today can relate. That’s the whole point of that particular movie, no? The Bling Ring, on the other hand, is particularly interesting in that it features the least likable characters in any of her films. All of them are frighteningly shallow and vapid and yet I don’t feel as if she’s judging them too harshly: the desire for fame, status, wealth, facebook friends, etc. is everywhere in our society so we all should be able to relate on some level — even if you and I would never do anything as drastic as break into someone’s home. However, I can already hear my students complaining that they couldn’t “care about the characters,” which is my least favorite criticism to hear about any movie.
JM: I’ve never heard that critique, but I understand why people would say that. However, that judgement stems from a lack of understanding of her bigger picture, and only a cursory look at what it aims to express. With her films, you have to look at the entire world that she’s creating, and that world’s relation to our real world. As I previously said, if you look past the characters’ race and class, you see emotions and pressures that extend beyond the superficial and into our reality. In The Bling Ring, it’s easy to judge superficial, privileged white kids living in California, but then again, as you said, we are all living in a world where we can identify with their desire to acquire more privilege, power and material possessions. If we could take advantage of others who possess more than us, would we attempt to appropriate that wealth and power as well? I think a lot of people already do in smaller, more abstract ways that are particular to their own lives.
With concern to Marie Antoinette, I think that saying that the only point of the film is to make Antoinette’s character simply relevant to teenage girls may be oversimplifying a tad bit. I could understand an argument that her character’s experience may be geared towards women, but I could also argue that the character of her husband could be one that men could identify with, such as one about to get married. For both characters, what I take away from their plights is that they are overwhelmed by responsibility, and a desire to skirt that responsibility by essentially being irresponsible, which I think everyone can identify with at one point during their lives. Given that this film is on the surface about a European queen during the 1700s, I think it’s quite a feat to make a contemporary audience identify with her, even if the majority are only teenage girls. And in that same vein, I’d like to talk a little further about the specific conventions and techniques that she uses to do that in that film, and also in Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, and especially The Bling Ring. Specifically, the way she utilizes music, through the lyrics and instruments, to capture a feeling of a scene. When Marie Antoinette came out, there was some criticism about her use of the song “I Want Candy” by the 1980s band Bow Wow Wow. I thought using that song was ingenious for several reasons. First, it gave the scene a sense of whimsy and fun, almost a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” vibe. Second, it made the 18th century relatable to contemporary audiences. Finally, she also used it as an aid to the set design and costumes. At that point in the film, it was all about excess, fluff, pink and frosting, and she used the bubblegum-ness of the song to mirror that of the film.
MGS: Good point about her use of music. I loved that “I Want Candy” montage. For me, Sofia Coppola’s greatest strength as a director is the way that she combines images and music to convey an incredible sense of energy. I think my favorite scene in The Bling Ring, for instance, was when Rebecca and Mark were driving and singing Kanye West’s “All of the Lights.” What really made that sequence for me was the use of jump-cuts, which provided a visual correllary to the fact that the characters were high on cocaine. And you and I both could cite countless examples from her films to illustrate how she conveys a similar energy. How about her use of Heart’s “Barracuda” to accompany a tracking shot of Josh Hartnett’s bad-boy character strolling through a high-school hallway in The Virgin Suicides? Or the twin strippers’ dancing to the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero” in Somewhere?
To address your other point, I don’t think it’s necessarily a “bad” thing to make audiences relate to characters in period-piece films. But I do think it might be more courageous to show viewers how different and strange the past was in comparison to the present — to make us understand without necessarily being able to “identify.” There is a very memorable scene in one of my favorite movies, Roberto Rossellini’s The Taking of Power By Louis XIV, where you see the incredibly elaborate process of how food was prepared and served to the king. The scene goes on forever and the longer it goes on the more it feels like something out of science fiction — and it just becomes mesmerizing. The opposite of this approach is what you see in those Elizabeth movies with Cate Blanchett. In the second one, I remember a scene where the queen smokes tobacco (brought to her from the new world by Sir Walter Raleigh) for the first time, and inhaling it makes her break out into fits of laughter. The idea is that it seems like she’s smoking pot, which makes no literal sense; it’s just a cheap, shorthand way to communicate something to contemporary audiences. It’s like the filmmakers are collaborating with the viewers over the heads of the characters, and that strikes me as dishonest. I don’t think this is what Sofia Coppola does in Marie Antoinette at all. She’s much more honest in that she includes deliberate anachronisms — like 1980s New Wave pop music on the soundtrack — in order to call attention to her modern point-of-view.
I’d like to bring up now what I consider Coppola’s biggest flaw: I think she’s a much better director than writer. While I think she’s good with sound and image, and while I think she’s good at directing actors, I feel like her approach to characterization and plotting has occasionally been a bit trite. I think when she tries her hand at satire, especially, her scenes tend to fall flat. The way the Giovanni Ribisi and Anna Faris characters are written in Lost in Translation seems too broad to me in comparison to the other characters in the movie. Same thing with Leslie Mann in The Bling Ring: her clueless New Age-mommy character feels one-dimensional and like an attempt to explain why her daughters were seduced by a life of crime. I know you’re a bigger fan of Coppola than I am so I wonder if this criticism makes any sense to you and if you disagree.
JM: I agree that there is value in showing the past as it was, but let’s face it, a movie about the 1700s in Europe may turn a lot of people off, and Coppola makes history more accessible to those who maybe wouldn’t necessarily have an interest in that topic otherwise. In my last defense of Marie Antoinette, I once took a class in grad school while pursuing my Masters in Library Science that focused on the history of the printed book. During that course, we focused on a chapter on scribes in the Middle Ages and saw pictures of early tomes with doodles along the spines from 500 A.D. from bored scribes. Even in the Middle Ages, people got bored at work and in class, as we do now. Throughout the entire class, the professor kept repeating that there is no us and them, only us; that people from 1,000 years ago, and two weeks ago, face roughly the same issues. My point here is that by Coppola presenting Marie Antoinette as a normal person with palpable needs and problems, she allows us to make an emotional connection to an unlikely historical figure.
Regarding Coppola’s writing abilities, her stories can be described as simple, and a good vehicle for the “less is more” ideology. In comparison to most films now, which are extremely complicated and where there is more, more, more of everything, she takes a basic story or feeling and illuminates the story around that concept. When I watch Coppola’s films, I know they are her films because of how my gut feels. She doesn’t beat you over the head with what she’s expressing, she lets it wash over you.
To briefly address the role of the mother in The Bling Ring, I don’t necessarily see her character as a complete explanation of why her daughter stole from others, though I agree that we can gather that her lack of parental supervision may have made it easier for her daughter to act up. I think the “why” of why this group of people did what they did goes back to what we’ve been discussing all along, and it’s multifaceted. It’s the parents, it’s Facebook, it’s our collective experience as people living in the 2000s, capitalism, and we could go on and on.
To just change the subject slightly, I’ve been asking myself if Sofia Coppola is a feminist director, or if the question is even important. I ask because so few films are directed by women even in today’s film world, and I wonder what the women who are working are doing and saying. She’s a woman, sure, but that doesn’t make her a feminist. Men can be feminists, and women can be huge proponents of patriarchy (insert Serena Williams here, but that’s for another day). Given my own working knowledge and constant exploration of what feminism is, I’d say yes. She also does pass the Bechdel Test. If I were pressed to give my own ruling on you, I’d say that you would fall into the feminist camp, Mike, so I’d like to know your opinion on this.
MGS: Great story about the scribes.
I should clarify that I like the simplicity of Coppola’s narratives. The “plot” of The Bling Ring is so lightweight that it’s barely there. But, for me, the film registers primarily as a sensual — and wholly cinematic — experience: it’s all about sound, color, light and movement and how these things register specifically to a group of people who are young, carefree and self-absorbed. In this respect, it’s like a pop song (as is Spring Breakers, with which it shares many similarities — more on that in a second). By contrast, I think the scenes with the parents feel a bit contrived and moralistic: Coppola makes it a point to illustrate that the parents are either absent or ignorant about what their kids are doing and Leslie Mann’s dialogue is pretty cartoonish. I agree that Coppola isn’t saying bad parenting is solely to blame but I think the film would’ve been more complex and troubling if we had seen that at least some of the parents were decent, smart, caring people.
The feminism question is a good one but also a thorny one: Coppola’s films aren’t explicitly about, say, gender inequality but if you can say that it is feminist for an artist to thoroughly explore the experiences and feelings of female characters (and I think you can), then I’d say Coppola’s a feminist by that criteria. I also think you could argue that she brings a female point-of-view to her sense of film aesthetics, and I don’t just mean in a simple “female gaze”-kind of way. The critic Kent Jones said something great about Coppola in his review of The Bling Ring. He wrote: “Sofia Coppola is uncommonly gifted at the articulation of something so fleeting and ephemeral that it seems to be on the verge of evaporating on contact with her hovering, deadpan, infinitely patient camera eye.” I know exactly what he means and I think this quality that he’s talking about arises from a specifically female touch (as opposed to say, the more masculine approach that Harmony Korine brings to Spring Breakers, which nonetheless also has a druggy/dreamy/poppy feel and similarly uses the exploits of shallow teenagers to critique capitalism).
Having said all that, my favorite aspect of The Bling Ring was the ending. I really admired the courage it took for Coppola to not only make a film about “unlikable” people but to end it with Nicki Moore (Emma Watson’s character) looking directly at the camera and pimping her website. To me, that said that this young woman had learned nothing and was, if anything, a worse person than before she went to prison. She was basically using her criminal activity to try and extend her 15-minutes of Z-list fame. That, to me, was a daringly truthful and unsettling ending and one that more than compensated for the reservations I had earlier about the depiction of the parents. Anything you’d like to add?
JM: Your description of The Bling Ring plot as “lightweight” is a distinct calling card of Coppola, but in her films, this airiness is expressed through the sound, the colors, the music, and so forth. For me, it’s the combination of all of those elements that I was previously describing that “wash over you,” and that includes the writing. What Kent Jones says is spot on with the “fleeting and ephemeral,” which I really get a sense of in The Virgin Suicides. The feeling that she leaves you with is difficult to describe in concrete terms, it’s almost an aura of the film. You make the point that it is an attribute of a female touch, and I would agree, but I would say that it’s a feminine touch, whereas visceral, blunt themes with heavy violence and explicit sex may lean more towards a masculine sensibility.
A quick note on the parents, I looked up the mother’s website, Andrea Arlington, and her online profile seems pretty matched up with how she was portrayed in the film. This seems like one of those cases where you can’t even “make this stuff up,” that reality in this case is sufficient for the film. To play devil’s advocate just a bit more, I think that one could make a slight argument that in The Bling Ring the mother of Nick did seem concerned and was not portrayed as a space cadet. However, I get that we aren’t given a lot of information on the other parents, so a more well-rounded argument is difficult to make.
Looking over her five films, I can’t wait to see Sofia Coppola’s filmography grow into a lengthy, full-bodied collection. When you and I first met, I remember gushing about The Virgin Suicides and singing Coppola’s praises, and you told me that you didn’t like her. Granted, when we first met I believe your film taste to be a little bourgeois and has definitely come down to earth a little more. That being said, how do you feel about her now?
MGS: At the time we met, I had only seen Lost in Translation, which I think is overrated but which seems to be her most beloved film. I do feel, however, that she has gotten better with each subsequent movie. I consider myself a fan and I look forward to her future work.
Jill’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
4. Lost in Translation
3. The Bling Ring
2. The Virgin Suicides
1. Marie Antoinette
Mike’s Ranking of Sofia Coppola’s Films
5. The Virgin Suicides
4. Lost in Translation
3. Marie Antoinette
1. The Bling Ring
Mike’s Rating for The Bling Ring: 7.6
You can check out the trailer for The Bling Ring via YouTube below: