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The Beguiled: Sofia Coppola's elegant, nuanced remake of a Southern Gothic thriller

Zooming in on the clashing tension of female fellowship and loneliness, The Beguiled is a stylistic, mood-driven uncovering of romantic spontaneity.

Sofia Coppola surprised many skeptics last May by having won Best Director at Cannes for her remake of The Beguiled. The original Don Siegel’s 1971 version, starring Clint Eastwood and set in the dying years of the American Civil War, was a typical Southern Gothic movie made with outlandish genre designs and sexual intensity. With the new movie, Coppola proudly siphoned the concept into her own scope. From a different perspective, The Beguiled assumes the form of a feminist movie by which Coppola avoids, or at least distracts us from, the North-South ideological comparison, and examines the sphere of gender politics.

In 1884, Union Corporal John McBurney (Collin Farrell) is rescued by an 11-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) while she wanders the eerie forest collecting mushrooms. The movie later admits this injured Irish mercenary is a Northern deserter, and his dastardly behavior will soon play out where Amy is taking him to rest. It’s an all-girls seminary in Mississippi, ran by headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). She intends to hand him over to Confederate soldiers but changes her mind because of Christian charity. That and other reasons we might infer from the washing session, which extends with Martha’s attentive hands feeling the flesh of a strong man, even with the sponge in between. Their hearts all start beating faster.

Collin Farrell as John McBurney

In this religious household also reside the prim teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and only five remaining students. The rest already left, including their slaves, who fled the war. These classy Southern belles study French and work their cheerless garden together, but a thin shroud of conservatism pervades their living space and separates the lonely women from one another. Their segregation is also intensified with Coppola ruling out the part Martha goes out to trade food.

Naturally, the girls seek male attention in McBurney’s presence. Each of them, awakened from the long drought of masculinity, responds in her own way. They aren’t succubi but still long for a man’s touch in this confinement. Mutual respect and etiquette might blanket the primal desire underneath the subservience for civilization, but the slightest of his biased favor can drastically stir the dynamic.

Nicole Kidman as Martha Farnsworth

We see psychosexual implications surround the characters as the sexually promiscuous Alicia (Elle Fanning) humors the giggling girls with the word “John.” Through brief pauses or eye contacts, Coppola emphasized the delicacy of subconscious expressions. This sets the ground for her to describe how the repressed sexual urge can collide with misunderstanding and curiosity to end up in a distressing solution. By restraining the leak of sexual invitation, Coppola derived the material of many Gothic features. The turning point for McBurney fades quickly as it comes, done with little impact, lest it hurt the fashionable sensitivity of her style.

That makes the flow rely immensely on emotional cues from the actresses. As a middle-aged schoolmarm of utmost wisdom and responsibility, the sophisticated Kidman gave layers to Martha so the character asserts control the whole ordeal. Here, Coppola didn’t mention the most intriguing, and also the most Gothic, aspect of Martha’s past but her expression may imply it. If you know this detail (from the original), you will see a disturbed Christian woman, fazed by the much-needed presence of a man, even when she draws a clear line between the “guest” and her students. Second to Martha only, Edwina is played by an indomitably stoic Dunst, whose weary appearance reminds us of her recent role in Midnight Special. As McBurney’s dauntlessly romantic approach leaves her bewildered, she appears as the purest, most reserved character. When Edwina converses with McBurney, cinematographer Philippe le Sourd either used backlight or filmed her from behind—to hide her facial expressions. The audience and McBurney are both out of sync with her thoughts. She puts up the most resistance before loving him out of both honesty and desperation. She thinks this love is reciprocal even though he only wants an easy way out.

Nicole Kidman and Collin Farrell

Fanning, maturing to a girl aware of her seductive allure in The Neon Demon, played Alicia. She is the most pro-active, at least when it comes to tasting the lips of a man, and the froths of her erotic suggestion add more temptation to McBurney’s situation. For the innocent and considerate Amy, Coppola removed the inappropriate kiss and her nickname for McBurney, so their relationship falls more on the more appropriate side of father-and-daughter. While Jane—Angourie Rice stopped being sassy—stands out as the gifted singer of the group, Marie (Addison Riecke) and Emily (Emma Howard) are plain and passive.

For a long while, nothing happens except for brief greetings—through words or through lips. After healing, McBurney is content, and his cooperation reinvigorates both the uncultivated garden and the ascetic lifestyle of traditional feminity. As a response, the women try to outmaneuver one another in terms of attractiveness. In a funny dinner scene, they want to win over his regard by claiming their parts in making an apple pie. So the charismatic womanizer gains the upper hand, plotting to take advantage of the women. For McBurney, Farell wore no flirtatious ambiguity like Eastwood, but he embraced an opportunist whose warm, refined courtesy could make the women feel safe and respected while he manipulates their hesitance.

You can see Coppola’s attention to blocking and lighting in every shot.

In this experimental direction, interactions are soused with poetic sensuality and stay abstract to relish the temperament. Again, Coppola applied one of her most famous motifs: characters looking out through a window. These women are almost uncaring with the world outside, but their inner selves have a lot to express. They fear for only a flicker of freedom because they would have to sacrifice security and stability. In wide shots and mid-shots with the remarkable arrangement of natural light, the voyeuristic camera seems unable to advance on them. For interior scenes, le Sourd used warm, suffusing candlelight to create sedate illumination, which flatters the enticing women in the room. Mysterious elegance permeates every shot—when the camera fixes on the road or closes in on the campy dialogues.

The Beguiled could become stale if not for the visual hints that satisfy any keen eye for baroque imageries. Twice, the movie shows the well in evocative pumping movements. Water is opulent when the women can slake their hormone-driven thirst, then becomes scarce when things are going down south—yes, they are in the South, but it’s even further down. The change in clothing also tells its own story: the ladies wear immaculate, cream-white dresses to present their purity of body and mind. Then Coppola shows us the shared dinners. At first, their outfits are all colorful with fringes and other intricacies to impress McBurney. But even when they are pitted against him, the women and girls are still fixated on his preference—they all wear low-necked and show their shoulders. When discomfort turns into a tantrum of obscenity and violence, McBurney compensates with his symbolic emasculation by, of course, taking a gun.

When it’s going good, it’s going great.

There are no more explicit yearnings from the distraught women as Siegel’s voice-over spelled out their thoughts. Besides, Coppola pruned several plot beats from the man’s perspective and moderated the body horrors, as they are unfit for this polished, glittering remake. Omitting Mae Mercer’s Hallie seems whitewashed—she’s the only black character in the original—but Coppola didn’t want to include any racial context, lest the movie drift off its focused course. This is more of an artistic exclusion than whitewashing, especially when the relationship between Ms. Hallie and Eastwood’s McBurney didn’t get resolved.

To make up for the lack of literary trappings,  Coppola continued to work with Anne Ross (her production designer in Lost in Translation, Somewhere, and The Bling Ring) for Southern Gothic aesthetics. The row of giant arching trees in the opening shot shows her respect to the genre, despite the radical changes to the plot. The ramshackle seminary feels like a living creature with sprawling moss and vines on the walls. It is sheltered by fog, fences, and overgrown bushes as though the world couldn’t reach it.

Zooming in on the clashing tension of female fellowship and loneliness,* The Beguiled* is definitely the most Sofia-Coppola movie so far. Her female characters are surrounded at a distance—but most of them are never overpowered—by nasty violence and politics. Accordingly, this stylistic, mood-driven uncovering of romantic spontaneity can easily confuse traditional viewers who want a more sharp direction, but fans of Coppola will find it another excellent case study for visual and psychological analysis.