Oh, Sofia Coppola – the all-time purveyor of manic pixie dream girls in all their forms and fashions. She has made a career out of exposing the complexities, the vanities, and the authentic realness of women and that sometimes gets lost in most mainstream pictures. Add to that her distinct and unmatched sense of dreamlike malaise and she has very much created a sub-genre unto herself.
Her latest effort, The Beguiled, is a remake; something unfamiliar to her as a filmmaker. She took a dark, sordid, and unusual little Clint Eastwood film from Don Siegel (one of the kings of movie masculinity) and turned it into a hazy, lacy exploration of femininity in the Civil War South. The result is a lush, vibrant, meticulous picture that once again showcases her adept skill as a filmmaker. But, The Beguiled also manages to feel as if there might not be very much there underneath the surface. Coppola has become the queen of beautiful frivolity, and The Beguiled is one such example.
Set in the third-year of the Civil War, The Beguiled begins with young Amy (Oona Laurence) picking mushrooms and stumbling upon a badly wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). She takes the wounded soldier back to her seminary school, where she and a few other girls are riding out the war as best they can. The school is run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), whose priority is the safety of her charges. Reluctantly, she tends to the wounds of the soldier and allows him to stay at the school until he heals, fearing that turning him over to the Confederates might sentence him to certain death. His arrival sparks immediate changes in the girls, including teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who is almost instantly wooed by the Corporal as he recovers. But all the girls, including Miss Martha, fall under the spell of the handsome man. Most have never known the touch of a man, while Miss Martha has, and very much seems to long to feel those sensations again. When one of the girls is betrayed by the Corporal, events are set into motion that turn The Beguiled into more of a horror film than we’ve seen from Coppola before. It’s here when the film finds out what it truly wants to be.
As with most of her films, Coppola stays away from blacks and whites. She lets just about everything exist in that grey area in between. In the original film, we know early on that Clint Eastwood’s soldier is a terrible man. Here, we never fully understand just what kind of man is Colin Farrell’s Corporal. He has moments of incredible charm and warmth, and moments of incredible viciousness and savagery. But, in the final few minutes of the film, we’re left to wonder whether or not his character is as bad as we might be believing. What makes The Beguiled so intriguing is that each character is acting the way they would act in the situation, which makes it difficult to put anyone in the position of being ‘wrong.’ Even the betrayal the Corporal commits is less of an intentional betrayal and more of a succumbing to pent up lust and passion that some of the girls themselves cannot control either. We are then left to wonder if the girls are acting out of safety and concern or more out of a sense of jealousy and spitefulness. The actions they take at the end are most certainly out of a need for self-preservation, even if they unwittingly set that necessity into motion themselves, through their actions.
Unlike the original film, Coppola is obsessed with how women behave towards men and themselves, particularly in the cloistered South. These girls are being trained at the school to be obedient wives who will serve their husbands and live minor, contended lives. When Farrell is introduced, their inner desires explode forth and their contentment at the smallness of their ambitions scatters away. As Edwina, Kirsten Dunst gets the weightiest challenge, having to serve as the embodiment of the heartbreak this kind of life can produce. She is a strong, intelligent, and attractive woman, but her spirit and sense of self-worth has been beaten down through years of being told that she is only really meant for one sort of life. Even the brief glimmer of a life outside the walls of the school is enough to make her let loose her rationality. On the contrary, Elle Fanning as Alicia is just beginning to discover who she is as a woman and the introduction of a handsome man into her already boring world is more than she can handle. The way all of the girls assert themselves towards the Corporal is fascinating and feels entirely honest.
All of this said – who cares? What is The Beguiled saying or trying to say? Like Somewhere and The Bling Ring, Coppola has created a technically marvelous picture that never fails to impress while you’re watching it but leaves you feeling a bit confounded when you walk out of the theatre. The Beguiled doesn’t really have anything new or exceptionally innovative to say about being a woman or being a woman in the south. And, even though they are entirely different films, the original picture seemed more interested in a narrative than Coppola seems to be. This isn’t a surprise, given her filmography, but the film really needed a forward momentum to carry us into that final act, and it just wasn’t there. Colin Farrell’s behavior in the film never paints a clear picture of who he is as a character, and while that was likely Coppola’s intention, it muddies the waters to the extent that we don’t really care about anyone. Am I supposed to think Farrell is a monster? Am I supposed to think Kidman is a monster? Are they both monsters? Unfortunately, for The Beguiled, I didn’t really think about it enough to care.
Coppola’s first three films – The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette – are, in my estimation, masterpieces. Her most recent three films are intriguingly beautiful but shockingly vapid. There just isn’t any ‘there’ there. Does this mean you shouldn’t check out The Beguiled? Absolutely not. It’s worth watching for the gorgeous cinematography, costume design, production design, and locations. It’s also worth watching for a crash course in how to not use a score for your film, something Coppola has relied on heavily in the past. You also get phenomenal performances from Kirsten Dunst, Nicole Kidman, and Colin Farrell. So, definitely watch it. But I then defy you to tell me what Coppola is trying to say. And if your answer is, “Why does she have to say anything?” – my response would be – “Then why remake it?” I love the original film. I like Coppola’s remake. I just don’t understand why it exists.