In interviews leading up to Tuesday’s premiere of The Beguiled, the director Sofia Coppola (one of the few directors at Cannes whose star status is almost as great as her cast) claimed that the film should not be deemed a remake of the 1971 Don Siegel potboiler of the same name. Coppola maintains that her script relies more on the Thomas Cullinan source novel than Siegel’s enjoyably lurid movie, which gave the young Clint Eastwood one of his best early roles. Savvy film buffs may have also sensed an unstated assertion that Coppola yearned to move away from the macho preoccupations of Siegel and Eastwood (who made an appearance at Cannes several days ago to give a master class) and take the opportunity to infuse her script with a distinctly feminist, or at least female, sensibility.
If truth be told, however, Coppola has only tweaked the structure of Siegel’s movie and delivered a slightly sleeker, and only incrementally more politically correct, version of this tale of a wounded Union soldier who finds temporary refuge in a Virginia girls’ school whose ranks have been depleted as the fighting rages during the last phase of the U.S. Civil War. Siegel and Eastwood regarded the story of Corporal John McBurney languishing among Southern belles as the impetus for a male wish-fulfillment fantasy. Coppola almost seems to view the erotic ambiance as a variation on the themes of her 1999 debut feature, The Virgin Suicides.
Yet while the young women in The Virgin Suicides were intent on destroying themselves, the more headstrong female contingent of The Beguiled view McBurney as amorous prey. It’s not easy to determine if they are being seduced by McBurney’s charms or if the incapacitated corporal is the object of group seduction.
Whatever the case, Coppola has certainly assembled an able cast in this ripe piece of Southern gothic that never quite congeals into campiness. As McBurney, the fallen soldier, Colin Farrell is a less threatening presence than Eastwood; his softness reiterates Coppola’s implicit point that he might be, in some respects, a feminized man whose fate is being determined by gracious Confederate women who can barely conceal their passions. Although the Siegel film featured Geraldine Page as Miss Martha Farnsworth, a palpably evil headmistress, Nicole Kidman’s incarnation of Miss Farnsworth is more calculating and less ferocious. Kirsten Dunst, perhaps Coppola’s favorite actress (the star of The Virgin Suicides, as well as Marie Antoinette—a film greeted with boos at its 2006 premiere in Cannes) is equally restrained as Edwina, an earnest teacher who falls head over heels in love with McBurney. Elle Fanning pouts ably as Alicia, a superficially innocent student who, perhaps inadvertently, triggers the film’s ultimate confrontation between an impudent, if sidelined, man and a battalion of female fury.
Like all of Coppola’s work, The Beguiled is visually stunning; the talented cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (perhaps best known for shooting Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster) conveys the school’s sexual humidity with a dazzling use of streaming light and contrasting shadows. At the film’s press conference, Coppola, who has a history of collaborations with distinguished cinematographers such as Harris Savides and Lance Acord, spoke of the delights of still being able to shoot in 35mm.
Despite being directed by a woman determined to reimagine an old chestnut, The Beguiled is not precisely a female empowerment narrative. While there is a glint in Nicole Kidman’s eye when she proposes a solution to forever curb her guest’s male hubris, both men and women in this movie are revealed as ineradicably flawed. In certain respects, the film is a romp that displays a director with her tongue firmly in her cheek. When Miss Farnsworth and her charges’ lust turns into aggression, all bets are off and credibility goes more than slightly out the window. (Spoilers must always be kept to a minimum—but it should suffice to say that Farrell loses his leg towards the end of the film and the word “castration” is uttered.) Still, intense passions that boil over with perilous results will always provide fodder for movie melodramas. The Beguiled is less a “correction” of Siegel’s cult classic than an attempt to help its hoary plot twists resonate with a contemporary audience.