Razor-tongued Judith Crist, of national critical reputation at the time of the release of The Beguiled in 1976, wrote: “A must for sadists and women-haters.” Passing over whether that is an apt description of the earlier film with Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, I am curious about how many of my readers would describe Sofia Coppola’s current version in the same way.
Under the firm yet delicate hand of Coppola, this Beguiled, from the novel by Thomas Cullinan is a mood piece. Pace and rhythm, atmosphere and setting, are beautifully sustained and controlled. If Nicole Kidman’s off-set comments are accurate — that Coppola captains a relaxed ship — the final edited result here is an impressive achievement. (I remain confused about one aspect of the production design and/or the photography. The backgrounds of the external shots invariably resemble still photographs — not process shots but stills. They are consistent and fit the mood. Was their intention beyond consistency and fitness? I would enjoy hearing from readers about this also.)
The story is set in the Confederacy during the Civil War at a girls’ boarding school — currently two instructors (Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst) and four students. They rescue and nurse back to health a wounded Union soldier, and the male presence among them surfaces repressions, rivalries and jealousies. SPOILER ALERT: They heal the captain’s wounded leg, but Miss Martha (Kidman with stalwart nursing skills) will eventually amputate it. Captain McBurney (Farrell) — though pathological in his fury — is more fortunate than he realizes because this is a substitute Freudian amputation.
Elle Fanning is uncomfortably good as the most nubile of the students. Dunst is pitch perfect in her special loneliness; Farrell is perfectly cast and always excellent; and Kidman is at her best in one of her most subtle performances.
A.O. Scoot in the New York Times describes The Beguiled as a comedy. This is debatable, even in the limited sense in which he apparently intended. But his description of the look of the film and of Coppola’s intent and achievement are both admirable: “Mist and cannon smoke from a distant battlefield hang amid the Spanish moss. The atmosphere is too genteel to be gothic, but it is haunted nonetheless, by intimations of disorder, lust and violence.” And Sofia Coppola’s film “is less a hothouse flower than a bonsai garden,a work of cool, exquisite artifice that evokes wildness on a small, controlled scale.” (New York Times, 6/23/17.)
The Beguiled The Beguiled
Sofia Coppola Don Siegel
NEXT FRIDAY POST August 11
See you at the movies,