Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” (2017)

First, a bit of personal sentiment if you’ll indulge me.  I try not to editorialize too much or insert myself into these essays— after all, that’s what my original film work is for. That said, I can’t help but express an appreciation for this harmonious coincidence of a new essay on director Sofia Coppola with the (very) recent birth of my daughter, Maisie.  Needless to say, she’s going to have an exceedingly nerdy dad that will share every ounce of his love for cinema with her. I don’t expect her to follow in my occupational footsteps, but if she does, I want her to see her womanhood as a major asset in her storytelling perspective. Female filmmakers like Coppola, Kelly Reinhardt, Ava DuVernay, Agnes Varda, and Kathryn Bigelow (amongst countless others) have made incredible strides within an industry that has traditionally suppressed their femininity as a liability, and I want Maisie to come to see them as role models (in addition to her mother, who’s already handily carving out quite a career for herself in children’s television).  Coppola in particular has been a formative influence in my own artistic development, and I’m beyond excited to someday share her work with this brand-new little lady.

The high-gloss productions of THE BLING RING (2013) and A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS (2015) showcased Coppola as an indie-minded director flirting with the commercial sensibilities of Hollywood filmmaking.  Despite the lavish perks that such a move engenders, she couldn’t quite shake a deep-seated repulsion to the industry’s materialistic values— a repulsion no doubt inherited from her iconoclast father, Francis Ford.  After THE BLING RING in particular, Coppola cited her wish to “cleanse herself” from what she described as a “tacky, ugly world” (2).  After washing out of her first attempt at moving on, an adaptation of the source text of THE LITTLE MERMAID she was developing to direct over at Universal, a friend suggested the rather surprising idea of remaking THE BEGUILED: a contained thriller from 1971, directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood against wan antebellum backdrop.  Coppola initially needed some convincing; nothing in her filmography suggested she had the desire to make a thriller, let alone tackle a full-on remake of an existing work.  The longer the idea marinated however, the more opportunity Coppola saw in the project. Rather than remake the original film, she would execute a fresh adaptation of the source novel by Thomas Cullinan (1), and by shifting the story’s perspective to that of the female’s perspective, she could reframe it as an elegant character study with genre elements.  The resulting work, 2017’s THE BEGUILED, would arrive as an invigorating new direction in Coppola’s artistic trajectory, exhibiting a newer, darker side of the feminine mystique that has come to define her work.

Coppola’s script retains the core conceits and general structure of both the novel (originally titled “The Painted Devil”) and Siegel’s original film, but her desire to shift the storytelling perspective opens up new angles of attack, carving deeper grooves of meaning and insight below the surface.  Her vision transplants the action from Mississippi to Virginia, where the waning days of the Civil War have left the countryside ravished and weary. The students and faculty of a local girls’ seminary proudly languish in a once-grand (but now-decrepit) plantation mansion, patiently waiting for their boys in grey to return home.  They fill their days learning high-society disciplines like classical music or French, all while the ceaseless booms of distant cannon fire remind them of the conflagration outside their crumbling stone gates. Their ethereal beauty stands in stark contrast to the desolation around them; they’ve become ghostly reminders of an elegant antebellum lifestyle that seems already consigned to the limbo of history.  This waking purgatory abruptly ends when one of the girls comes across an injured Union soldier hiding out on their land. The women bring the soldier — the only man they’ve seen in quite some time — into their house as both prisoner and ward, becoming increasingly gripped by curiosity as they nurse him back from the brink of death.

As the injured soldier, Corporal McBurney, Colin Farrell delivers a manipulative, charismatic performance that divides the girls against each other in their desire for his affection. Farrell leverages his Irish heritage to add depth to the character’s smoldering darkness, playing McBurney as a recent immigrant who was immediately drafted up into the Union Army upon arrival, and thus holds no allegiance to his adopted country— only to himself. He still bears traces of his accent, which highlights how conflicting the process of assimilation has been for him even as it imbues him with a European exoticism in the eyes of the young women.  He thinks he’s hit the jackpot — a mansion full of beautiful women at his beck and call — but the toxic rage and entitlement that forms the bedrock of his true character proves no match for the united front put up by his female caretakers. That their final stand is so quietly effective is a testament to the pragmatic clarity and bottomless strength of the school’s headmistress, Miss Martha. Played by Nicole Kidman in a career-best turn, Miss Martha is a strong and dignified matron, blessed with the social graces of her elite Southern pedigree. Her age and experience enables her to resist McBurney’s charms while ferreting out his weaknesses.  The same can’t be said of the school’s French teacher, Edwina, a fading southern belle who refuses to go quietly into spinster-hood. Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst imbues the character with an assured, yet weary, elegance— a stark departure from the bubbliness that marked her performances in THE VIRGIN SUICIDES (1999) or MARIE ANTOINETTE (2006), signaling surprising new avenues for the actress to explore as she matures out of the comparatively-youthful roles that made her name.  Last seen in Coppola’s filmography as a gangly adolescent in 2010’s SOMEWHERE, Elle Fanning appears all grown up here as Alicia, one of the older students caught in self-serving thrall to her teenage hormones.  While Edwina’s attraction to McBurney is misguidedly romantic, hers is purely driven by sexual curiosity. Together, they stand as critical faults in the armor that Miss Martha labors to project, giving THE BEGUILED an additional layer of nuanced tension and conflict.

$10.5 million dollars is not a lot of money when it comes to film production budgets, but Coppola’s experience in the independent realm as well as the artistic pedigree of her home studio, American Zoetrope, allows for ample creative resources that stretch the value of her dollar.  THE BEGUILED was shot in Louisiana over the scant span of 26 days (1), utilizing real-world locations like the historic Madewell Plantation and the private New Orleans residence of actress Jennifer Coolidge (3).  Such a scenario doesn’t leave much room for things to go wrong, so it’s fortunate that Coppola has cultivated a crack team of collaborators that ensure a smooth shoot executed in unwavering allegiance to her vision.  This circle of trust begins at the top, with returning producing partner Youree Henley, as well as familial connections like her brother Roman Coppola and her father’s producing partner Fred Roos, who guide the project in an executive producer capacity.  Returning production designer Anne Ross and editor Sarah Flack continue to sculpt and hone Coppola’s distinct aesthetic— Ross’ understated recreation of plantation-era Virginia utilizes soft neutrals and desaturated pastels to underscore the story’s inherent feminine viewpoint, while Flack’s simplistic — but no less evocative — montage patiently evokes the observational nature of Coppola’s approach to coverage.  The band Phoenix, fronted by Coppola’s husband Thomas Mars, once again provides THE BEGUILED’s original score, albeit via atmospheric compositions that are so subtle and spare that one could argue that the word “music” no longer applies.  

Coppola’s one wild card is cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, but thankfully, their first collaboration together yielding stunning results.  After her brief foray into digital with THE BLING RING, Coppola returns to the organic beauty of 35mm celluloid film, utilizing the unconventional 1.66:1 aspect ratio so as to fulfill her desire for a vintage canvas without imposing the severity of the square 1.33:1 frame.  Le Sourd and Coppola pulled their exposure by one stop in the lab so as to achieve a low-contrast look that preserves detail in the shadows, resulting in an aesthetic that splits the difference between a fashion film and gothic haunted-house horror.  Apropos of THE BEGUILED’s pre-electric antebellum setting, Coppola and Le Sourd cultivate a “no-light” approach, favoring silhouettes framed against blown-out windows or the dim glow of candlelight.  Even sequences shot in broad daylight employ a gauzy, soft quality. Coppola takes the opportunity afforded by her evocative backdrop to craft assertive compositions, oftentimes framing in the wide so as to emphasize landscape.  Her confidence in the narrative integrity of these compositions is reinforced by the camera’s distinct lack of movement; indeed, the static gaze of a locked-off camera projects something of painterly aura. She rejects the modern sensibility of conveying immediacy or danger through handheld photography, opting instead for elegant crane or dolly sweeps whenever the story motivates movement.  Small audiovisual flourishes like lens flares, black puffs of smoke on the horizon, and the distant sound of encroaching cannon fire further tease out the beauty of the environment while reflecting the growing tension that threatens to tear this fragile world asunder.

For all the narrative details that make THE BEGUILED a rather unconventional entry within Coppola’s filmography, its thematic undercurrents hew extremely close to her established characteristics as an artist.  Almost every Coppola film to date can be described as a chamber piece that takes place within a confined setting, usually with some degree of architectural value or interest.  Oftentimes these backdrops are real-world locales playing themselves— Tokyo’s modern, monolithic Park Hyatt in LOST IN TRANSLATION or the old-world regality of NYC’s elegant Hotel Carlyle in A VERY MURRAY CHRISTMAS immediately come to mind.  She’s cultivated a reputation for responsible stewardship over delicate or sensitive locations, with successful shoots at Versailles Palace for MARIE ANTOINETTE or the Chateau Marmont for SOMEWHERE emboldening subsequent location caretakers to open their doors to Coppola and her crew, secure in the knowledge that they will leave the space better than they found it.  THE BEGUILED proudly continues this tradition, finding Coppola and her team utilizing the Madewood Plantation House, a National Historic Landmark that now operates as a rustic bed and breakfast.  Far from a decaying, isolated mansion in real life, the Madewood kindly permitted the production to dirty up its pristine white facade to suggest years of neglect.

The encroaching squalor of the seminary affords Coppola some artistic wiggle room to maneuver around the story’s thornier prospects.  Recent years have seen the commercial co-opting of the southern antebellum aesthetic, especially by brands and influencers that cater to an affluent, female, and predominantly-white audience.  The quaint beauty of southern architecture, culture, and fashion becomes problematic when fetishized, as it tends to focus entirely on surface aesthetics at the expense of the shameful history (i.e., slavery) that drove its proliferation.  Coppola risks critical exposure on two fronts here: on one hand, her privileged upbringing and personal taste for designer fashion makes her susceptible to similar accusations of cultural tourism, or passive tone-deafness of the kind that dogged the reception to LOST IN TRANSLATION.  On the other hand, Coppola does omit one notable detail that other versions of THE BEGUILED included: the slaves who lived and labored on the seminary grounds.  Indeed, there is not a single person of color to be found throughout Coppola’s adaptation— an admittedly alarming choice for a story set on a Civil War-era plantation in rural Virginia.  For better or worse, this was a deliberate choice on Coppola’s part; when she was called out on the matter during press interviews, she was openly candid about her own struggles with the omission, citing her convictions that such an important topic shouldn’t be “brushed over” (4).  Whether or not her audience agrees with her conclusion is guaranteed to run the spectrum of reactions, but the conscious decision to de-glamorize the seminary allows for a kind of thematic distance where one can better judge THE BEGUILED’s story on its own merits as an insular thriller about sexual tension and manipulation.

Some may (rightfully) feel that the relatively-recent phenomenon of remakes constitutes a scourge on modern cinema.  They are almost certainly a reaction to studios’ desire to hedge their bets with lucrative intellectual property over original ideas; indeed, every studio has some form of internal document that compiles all the titles in their back catalog that they feel are ripe for the remake treatment, which they frequently circulate to filmmakers for pitching purposes.  This environment leaves very little oxygen for well-intentioned artists to bring new insights into familiar stories, but every so often, one or two remakes manage to flare up with genuine inspiration. Think back to Gus Van Sant’s PSYCHO (1998), which dared to quite literally re-make Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece shot for shot.  While this approach generally backfired with critics and audiences alike, there is nevertheless an intriguing artistic exploration unfolding at the conceptual level.  By doing the “shot-for-shot remake” first, Van Sant was effectively demonstrating its fundamental emptiness as a commercial venture, undercutting future filmmakers who might have the same idea.  On the other hand, by copying Hitchcock’s approach, Van Sant evokes a larger conversation about the inscrutable, magical aspects of cinema, prompting a debate on how color impacts a film’s psychological impression versus black-and-white, or whether a given director’s artistic “essence” can be replicated by xeroxing their techniques.  Say what you will about the end product, but Van Sant effectively gave his remake of PSYCHO a valid artistic reason for existence— albeit one better suited to the forum of museums and academia instead of cinema.  Coppola similarly imbues THE BEGUILED with a valid approach that justifies the story’s retelling, leveraging her perspective on the feminine experience to yield fascinating new insights. The film’s atmosphere is heavy with her characteristic mystique, which presents the female perspective as both intimate and unknowable; a tangle of melancholy navel-gazing, passionate desire and calculating defensiveness.  These women — matronly Miss Martha included — are naturally curious about their masculine house guest, their stark physical and psychological differences in gender made all the more pronounced by their isolation. The code of Southern hospitality dictates they must greet this fox in their henhouse with a warm civility and a gentle grace: social expectations that splinter their tight-knit community with disharmonious drama.  It’s not until they realize that McBurney is using their very womanhood against them that they band back together, pulling from deep, untapped reserves of strength in order to rid their house of this charismatic monster.

Despite barely recouping its budget at the domestic box office (5), THE BEGUILED stands proudly as one of the most successful films of Coppola’s career. It would compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes, ultimately winning the festival’s Best Director award— the first time a woman had won in fifty years (and only the second time overall) (1)).  Her first foray into genre territory resonated strongly with critics, who praised the film’s delicate balance of tone while singling out Kidman’s compelling performance. THE BEGUILED’s sophisticated portrait of womanhood under siege seems to mark an inflection point in Coppola’s own development, exhibiting the nuanced maturity and confident restraint of an artist settling into middle age.  There are no signs of crisis here; no frantic realization that time is beginning to run out. There is only the promise of creative rejuvenation, like a vibrant flower poised to bloom into new avenues of expression.  This new era has already proved quite prolific: the same year that she released THE BEGUILED, Coppola also directed an imaginative retelling of the opera LA TRAVIATA for the stage, complete with costumes by Valentino. She’s also preparing to shoot ON THE ROCKS, a movie for Apple’s upstart streaming service that will reunite her once more with Bill Murray as an aging playboy on an adventure through New York with his daughter, played by Rashida Jones.  Indeed, it seems there are so many opportunities that lay ahead for Coppola, it’s become outright impossible to forecast where her artistic development is headed. If THE BEGUILED’s brooding sophistication is any indication, however, then Coppola stands poised to recapture — and redefine — the elusive, melancholic ethereality that made her name.

THE BEGUILED is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Universal.

Credits:

Produced by: Sofia Coppola, Youree Henley

Written by: Sofia Coppola

Director of Photography: Philippe Le Sourd

Production Designer: Anne Ross

Edited by: Sarah Flack

Music by: Phoenix

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: Sollosi, Mary (June 16, 2017). “The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola on how she made the remake her own”. Entertainment Weekly. Time. Retrieved June 23, 2017.
  3. Via Wikipedia: Buchanan, Kyle (June 14, 2017). “How Sofia Coppola Reclaimed The Beguiled for Women (and Gay Men)”. Vulture. New York Media. Retrieved July 9, 2017
  4. Via Wikipedia: Rao, Sonia (June 22, 2017). “Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ criticized for leaving out a slave narrative from the Confederate South”. The Washington Post. The Washington Post Company. Retrieved August 27, 2018

Via Wikipedia: The Beguiled”. Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved October 31, 2017.