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Sofia Coppola's remake of THE BEGUILED is a slyly subversive, often quite funny, reinterpretation of the pulpy, febrile Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood film of 1971. For better and for worse, it's not the gamey kind of fun that movie was. Spooky and rather arty itself, the Siegel was either a twisted feminist or a misogynist classic, depending upon your point of view—a (quite revealing) male anxiety dream about women's lib. (It could also be read as a Vietnam allegory). It was an eerie folk ballad, a cautionary tale wherein the Big Bad Wolf falls into a coven of witches.

Both movies adapt a Thomas P. Cullinan novel of 1966, which I haven't read. The setup: a dissembling, charming Union soldier with a wounded leg, McBurney (Colin Farrell, stepping into the Eastwood role, now more object than subject of the story), finds shelter at a southern girls' school housed in a plantation, where he's viewed with a mix of fear and fascination by the women. They take turns waiting on him and competing for his affection. What at first seems a male-supremacist dream turns into a nightmare.

As writer and director of this remake, Coppola had the interesting idea to make a critique, telling Siegel's woman-spooked fable from the corseted females' perspective. However, you wouldn't know that if you haven't seen the Siegel before going in, as I had not. (I've since caught up.) You'd simply enjoy the new movie for its absorbing narrative, and for the sly interplay of the fine actresses, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning, bound in tangled lines of allegiance and suspicion, as conveyed through glances and witty editing. It's an exquisitely modulated work of art.

This being Coppola, this movie's atmospherics are, of course, savory. (She won the Best Director prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival for this film, marking the first time in 50 years a woman has won the award, and only the second time ever.) Shot in a New Orleans mansion on 35mm, it's an achievement in candlelit moviemaking, by Coppola and cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, that can be mentioned in the same sentence as BARRY LYNDON. If anything, the movie thickens the Southern Gothic air. I think of a gorgeous moment when the sun breaks through the mist-enshrouded, Spanish moss-draped oak trees. The grounds teem with cicadas, chirping wall-to-wall on the soundtrack. I thought I'd be hearing them in my dreams. Just about every shot is a feast for the eye, as when she arranges the woman around the piano, a portrait in pastel dresses.  

 It's more subtle and nuanced than the 1971 film (it couldn't be less), a comedy of Victorian manners, when bared shoulders were risqué. Some will find it too muted. There's none of the feverish inner thoughts of sex-starved women—in the original, these just about scream "wishful male projection." Ms. Martha, in the Siegel: "If this war goes on, I'll forget I'm a woman." There's no fantasy threesome resolving itself into a pietà, dreamed up by Ms. Martha. Also gone is the lurid incest storyline.

(Coppola's version cuts the character of the slave woman, as well, a decision that has already kicked up much discussion. In her version, the slaves have run off. Not having seen the original when I went in, Coppola's story, for me, was about these women left completely to fend for themselves).  

Her version is a lot of fun in its own right, much of it based on table-turning. (She's said in interviews she was keen to objectify Farrell for the benefit of the gay male, and female, gaze). When Kidman says to her young Southern charges, attempting to impart a lesson, "The enemy as an individual is not what we believe," she's really talking about men and the war that is the true subject of both films—not the Civil, but the one between the sexes. To humanize the "enemy," i.e., women in the original, is part of the point of this new version.      

As Ms. Martha, the po-faced, refined headmistress, Kidman dials down the deliciously campy menace of Geraldine Page. Through male eyes, Ms. Martha was an evil castrater: through Coppola's, she's just doing what needs to be done. Beneath her breeding, Kidman reveals a merciless core, embodied in a late gaze down the table into the camera that, for timing and comedy, must rank as one of the most delightful shots in modern filmmaking. A faraway-eyed Kirsten Dunst plays the virginal teacher, Edwina. As originally portrayed by Elizabeth Hartman, she was pretty much the only good human in that film. Like McBurney, she feels like a prisoner—"a sleeping beauty needing a man's kiss to awaken her," per Clint in the original. Dunst and Coppola feel Edwina's straitened life more acutely, fleshing out the dimensions of her longing, her ache for experience. Elle Fanning plays the horny adolescent who chafes at the rules, rather a poxy young doxy in the original. In Coppola and Fanning's nonjudgmental take, the character is a searching teenager, and the movie shifts some of the onus onto McBurney for exploiting her. 

Sofia Copolla's shift of empathy in her version of THE BEGUILED reverberates beyond the edges of this remake. It makes you think about how the rest of film history would be different, from a female point of view.

Sofia Coppola's THE BEGUILED  (2017, 94 min, DCP Digital) plays Landmark’s Century Centre Cinema starting June 29Check Venue website for showtimes.

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

 ***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!) 


Reader Comments (1)

Saw the film tonight. Loved it. Your review perfectly captures the essence of "The beguiled.".

July 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara Pfeiffer

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