Sisters of death: Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

beguiledBack in 1971, as Hollywood tough guy Clint Eastwood was just entering his macho Dirty Harry phase, he and genre director Don Siegel made the lurid Civil War thriller The Beguiled, in which Clint plays a wounded Yankee solider taken in by a house full of Southern women — who proceed to fawn, fight over, and then gradually emasculate him.

In cinemas this week is the new remake of that film from American writer-director Sofia Coppola, whose work — which includes The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation, and Marie Antoinette — has proved distinct in its intuitive, emotional portraits of sheltered young women struggling to breathe within their gilded cages.

It should come as little surprise, then, Coppola’s take on The Beguiled is defined by her attentiveness to the feminine gaze, an element that tips the original – which gave us Eastwood’s noble exasperation at the hands of his vengeful captors – more or less on its head. The film is also much neater – and in that respect, less successful – than its problematic but richly nasty predecessor.

In the Eastwood role of Corporal John McBurney we have the considerably less threatening Colin Farrell, a warm, generous actor who steps into the movie’s proverbial henhouse with Irish brogue and matinee good looks all in tact. The wounded McBurney is found hiding from Confederate troops in the Virginia woods, and taken to convalesce at an all girls’ school presided over by headmistress Miss Farnsworth — the amusingly rigid Nicole Kidman. It’s also home to three younger girls, a flirtatious teenager (Elle Fanning), and a repressed schoolteacher, played by longtime Coppola muse, Kirsten Dunst. Missing from this mix, but present in the original: an African American female servant character, an omission for which Coppola has taken some flack in the US. It’s an issue the filmmaker felt she couldn’t do justice to in this story — Coppola’s script simply suggests that the slaves have all left, with a minimum of fuss.

It’s not long before this simmering brew of female desire bubbles over, and McBurney finds himself caught in a tug of war of furtive glances, side-eye jealously, and unchecked impulses with no behavioural baseline. Farrell — whose real-life romances cover everyone from Lindsay Lohan to a rumoured fling with late-period Elizabeth Taylor — proves a serviceable object of lust, a smooth talking soft toy who drops cheesy, faux-ribald lines about the ladies’ overgrown hedges and roses that need pruning. In contrast to Eastwood’s seething alpha male — who actually makes out with a 12-year-old in the opening moments of that film — Farrell is like a bedroom pin up come to life, one that the girls paw and kiss before inevitably tearing to shreds.

As ever, Coppola is an intricate weaver of atmosphere. Shrouded in diffuse fog and guarded by dappled cobwebs, her antebellum schoolhouse seems to exist in its own fairytale dimension, where the sounds of artillery fire are little amore than abstract echoes in the distance. Her Beguiled has the esoteric cult feel of films like Lucile Hadzihalilovic’s Innocence or even Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Its closest antecedents, of course, can be found in none other than the work of Coppola herself — the hermetically sealed waifs here draw a direct line to the director’s dreamy 1970s suburbia, her candy-coated Versailles, and even the teen celebrity obsessives of The Bling Ring — young women finding or losing their way in the world. It’s a genre to which Coppola has essentially become the millennial godmother.

But the Beguiled also calls for a degree of storytelling discipline, and as the film twists and turns through an oddly truncated back stretch, Coppola feels less interested in hitting the pulpy beats of the material and more concerned with indulging the details of light, texture and nuance. She’s a director more attentive to the way a nightgown unfolds, or the manner in which a ribbon threads through pleated hair, than the melodrama of psychotic character showdowns or combustible performances.

Then again, maybe narrative crescendos are for male directors. There’s a curiously deliberate rhythm to the way in which Coppola’s film quietly shrugs its pastel shoulders in the final act, delivering a pretty, underplayed anticlimax as if to say, well, that’s just what happens when you mess with girls — nothing to see here.

The Beguiled is also an oddly funny film, at times played as an almost straight-up comedy of manners. Whereas Siegel and Eastwood had watched in horror at the slow demise of their masculinity, Coppola’s girls are the cats that treat Farrell’s mouse as their plaything — giggling and conspiring when they’re not swooning in his company. Sure, the film could do with some of the acerbic eroticism of, say, Catherine Breillat, but Coppola’s girls’ school humour is perceptively tuned to the whims of her characters. And what could be funnier than watching a man’s emasculation over 90 minutes?

This new Beguiled misses some of the more grotesque provocations of the original, but the two films complement each other as mirror versions of desire. Maybe check out the earlier version, if you haven’t done so already. All told, Coppola’s film is another satisfying, if somewhat minor, addition to the filmmaker’s impressive career dollhouse. The Beguiled is out now.

 Originally published at ABC, July 2017

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