2017, R, 93 min. Directed by Sofia Coppola. Starring Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Colin Farrell, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., June 30, 2017
Southern Gothic with a femme fatale’s touch, Sofia Coppola’s super softcore reimagining of the 1971 Don Siegel film, itself loosely adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel, is considerably more restrained in tone than its filmic predecessor. Siegel’s deeply perverse version featured Clint Eastwood as the wounded and scheming Yankee Corporal John McBurney, who is tended to and then trapped by the residents of a Confederate state boarding school for young women. It flopped at the box office, but having recently rewatched, there’s no denying it’s a deeply bizarre and engrossing movie.
Coppola’s remake earned her the Best Director prize at Cannes this year, making her the second female director ever to do so (should you be keeping score, Yuliya Solntseva won it in 1961 for Chronicle of Flaming Years). The Beguiled is indeed a bewitching portrait of strong, competent women facing down the potential threat of a male intruder in the confines of the seminary’s safe haven. To paraphrase David Byrne, this ain’t no party, but there is plenty of time for fooling around, a looming realization that concerns headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Kidman), who’s clearly all aflutter herself.
Farrell takes on the original’s Eastwood role as the bearded and bloodied blue-belly, initially found in the woods by Miss Martha’s youngest charge, little Amy (Laurence) while she’s out picking mushrooms. Farrell, employing his native Irish brogue as mercenary Corporal McBurney, enjoys the ministrations of these chaste ladies while he recovers, but as soon as his injuries allow, he’s up and at ’em, in particular Miss Martha and assistant Edwina (Coppola veteran Dunst), the latter of whom longs for something more than the genteel Southern sexual limbo she’s currently inhabiting. The corporal turns out to be a master manipulator, but the real power ultimately lies with the headmistress, whose actions proceed from “Christian charity” to repressed desire, and from there to “hell hath no fury”-land with steely, believable ease.
Coppola and art director Jennifer Dehghan render the film a gauzy, diaphanous waking dream. Sunlight pierces through the willows draped with Spanish moss and the use of natural candlelight adds both realism and surrealism to the proceedings. Shot with sultry, south of the Mason-Dixon line nuance by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and accompanied by Laura Karpman’s haunting score, The Beguiled is a slow-burn tale of repressed sexuality and duplicitous doings. Its final twist, though, steals it from the realm of male-gaze fantasies into sheer nightmare territory.