The Beguiled

The-Beguiled-rev The Beguiled  (2017)    Focus/Drama    RT: 94 minutes    Rated R (some sexuality)    Director: Sofia Coppola    Screenplay: Sofia Coppola    Music: Phoenix    Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd    Release date: June 30, 2017 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard, Wayne Pere.

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 People will invariably refer to Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled as a remake of a Clint Eastwood movie. That statement isn’t entirely accurate. The original version of The Beguiled is NOT a “Clint Eastwood movie”. Rather, it’s a movie that stars Clint Eastwood. There is a difference. The term “Clint Eastwood movie” refers to titles like Dirty Harry, High Plains Drifter, Unforgiven and Gran Torino. However, the actor has done a few movies that don’t fit this description- e.g. Honkytonk Man, White Hunter, Black Heart and Bridges of Madison County- but The Beguiled is the one most unlike anything he’s ever done. He plays against type as an injured Union soldier who causes big trouble at an all-girls school in the South. His presence there brings about feelings of desire and jealousy among the sexually repressed girls. Released during a time when the Women’s Lib movement was at its peak, the movie struck a nerve with its not-too-subtle depiction of the power struggle between genders. It was also a story of sexual awakening. It’s clearly NOT a “Clint Eastwood movie”.

 the-beguiledWhen I heard Coppola would be directing a new version of The Beguiled, I said, “Yes!” I always saw The Beguiled as a feminist story so it made perfect sense for a female filmmaker to tell it. I’m saying this as a movie lover who deplores remakes. That is, unless the one doing the remaking has something new to bring to it which is too often NOT the case. I had confidence that Ms. Coppola, who also wrote it, would do amazing things with The Beguiled. Disappointingly, her latest work falls far short of amazing. It’s good but it’s nowhere near the level of excellence set by Lost in Translation, one of the finest films of the 21st century in my opinion. Sadly, all of her movies since have suffered because of it. With her second feature film, Coppola set the bar too high. She’ll be hard-pressed to reach it again much less surpass it. Even so, she still does solid work as you can see in The Beguiled.

 The basic story frame remains intact. Set during the Civil War, 11-year-old Amy (Laurence, Bad Moms) goes into the woods looking for mushrooms where she finds wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Farrell, The Lobster) hiding from Confederate troops. Shot in the leg, he can’t move on his own. Amy helps him back to the girls’ school where she lives with two teachers and four other students. Everybody else has left because of the war. Headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Kidman, To Die For) agrees to tend to his wound and allow him to heal before she turns him over to Confederate troops who periodically pass by the school. She’s crystal clear that he’s a most unwelcome guest and has no intention of entertaining him. Of course, the others aren’t of the same mind.

 They’re all intrigued by McBurney especially teacher Edwina Morrow (Dunst, The Virgin Suicides), a seriously repressed sort confused by the intense feelings he stirs in her. The students, some of whom initially despise as a Yankee “blue belly”, are also curious about their visitor. They huddle by the door to the music room where Martha has him confined hoping to catch a glimpse. The oldest student Alicia (Fanning, Somewhere) is at that age where she’s bored of childhood things and wants to explore her womanhood. Suddenly, all the girls are taking more pride in their appearance, dressing up and wearing jewelry in hopes of catching McBurney’s attention. He manages to charm every one of his hostesses but he’s not a good guy. He’s manipulative and will say anything to avoid being sent away upon recovering from his wound. He tells Edwina that he’s fallen in love with her. Then, one night, she catches him in bed with Alicia and everything changes, eventually reaching the point where he becomes a real danger.

 I figured that Coppola would do more with the sexual aspects of The Beguiled. Times have changed and audiences aren’t so easily shocked anymore. What would have been taboo in 1971 isn’t in 2017. Oddly enough, the older version is more lurid and explicit. She hardly shows anything in her remake. It takes something away from the story I think. It’s not the only change Coppola has made either. She cuts out the subplot dealing with incest entirely which changes Martha’s character significantly. In the original, it explained why she initially hated McBurney so much. Without it, we don’t understand why she’s so hostile towards him aside from representing the largely unseen enemy. Coppola also ignores the issue of slavery, omitting the character of the slave Hallie entirely. There’s one brief mention of the school’s slaves having run away, that’s it. This is a grievous misstep on Coppola’s part. Just imagine the impact scenes between McBurney and Hattie would have in today’s times. There is a wealth of African-American actresses that could have done wonders with the role. It lessens the overall strength of the film.

 Another thing I noticed, and it’s a small detail, is that the girls don’t go around barefoot like they did in the original movie. It added to the older movie’s sense of realism. Times were tough in the South in the Civil War era, things like shoes were a luxury and worn only on special occasions. Shoes wear out and with little to no money for such things, sacrifices had to be made. Coppola actually keeps the war at a distance. We rarely see the troops. The scene where Confederate soldiers show up at the school is different in a few ways. They don’t pose any threat, they’ve come for food not to satisfy their lustful desires. We get a brief glimpse of them, that’s it. The girls still take turns looking out for approaching troops and sometimes we see smoke in the distance but we never hear of any specific events.

 Okay, so Coppola’s take on The Beguiled is flawed. It does, however, have its strong points. It’s beautifully filmed (as is all of Coppola’s films). It lingers on certain images allowing us to take it in. Music is used sparingly. In fact, it’s nearly completely score-free. Coppola allows The Beguiled to speak for itself by way of visuals rather than a score that tells you how to feel at any given moment. It has a soft, dark look to it that, combined with Coppola’s use of natural lighting (especially in the interior scenes), makes The Beguiled feel like a fever dream. The performances are good all around. Farrell brings subtle menace to his role. It’s scary how easily he changes character depending on the person with whom he interacts. Fanning is teenage yearning incarnate. Dunst uses her natural delicacy to great advantage. Kidman is a tough, steely woman who briefly allows herself to fall under McBurney’s sway until she returns to her senses.

 Coppola’s The Beguiled is less a thriller and more a drama of sexual awakening and female empowerment. As such, it lacks the hot henhouse tension of the original. It doesn’t have the same Gothic trappings and trash factor- i.e. the bed-hopping, inappropriate interaction with young girls, etc. Coppola has cut down the story to its bare bones. It has some striking imagery but it’s simply not as haunting as the original. Coppola hasn’t made a better film, just a different one. It’s not a bad remake, it’s actually a pretty good one. It could have been great given the talent on both sides of the camera. It’s still worth seeing, just don’t expect to be wowed. 

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