In the world of moviemaking, where genre entertainments can rake in big profits but also grind a filmmaker’s artistic idiosyncrasies into pop mush, we may well wonder what happens to the likes of independent filmmakers such as Sofia Coppola, Patty Jenkins, and Edgar Wright when they embark on genre projects. Do they bring a personal touch or do their personalities disappear?
Sofia Coppola’s artistic personality has not been extinguished in the making of The Beguiled, but that’s not necessarily a good thing when you consider the material. The story, drawn from a Thomas Cullinan novel, is an uninhibited piece of Southern Gothic in the tradition of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” It was filmed as such in 1971 by Don Siegel, who milked the material for every drop of sensationalism, with Clint Eastwood cast in the only unsympathetic role of his career.
The year is 1864, and Martha Farns-worth presides over her Seminary for Young Ladies in a deserted area of Virginia as Union and Confederate troops chase each other through nearby swamps and forests. When she takes in a wounded “blueback,” intending to transport him to a prisoner of war camp as soon as he’s healed, the charming but amoral Corporal McBurney becomes a fox in an all too easily breached henhouse. Furtive sex ensues, then utter madness: gunfire, beatings, dismemberment, rape threats, poisoning.
Now, Sophia Coppola is a master of understatement and a fount of loving kindness for her characters—as witness her best films, especially Lost in Translation. But her Chekhovian qualities work against the special delights of the Gothic genre, and she smothers the story with her to-understand-all-is-to-forgive-all treatment. The new version of The Beguiled goes wrong in every department.
Screenplay: working from the 1971 script by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, she made few changes, but those few are decisively inept. Gone is the school’s black slave, a tough, shrewd woman whose sanity underscores the growing lunacy of the other characters. Headmistress Martha becomes a loving protector of her students instead of a sexually frustrated and vengeful fury. So, when McBurney makes it clear toward the end of the film that he’s leaving the school and will no longer molest the women, but Martha proceeds anyway with a plot to poison him, her vindictiveness makes no dramatic sense, since it no longer accords with Coppola’s gentler conception of the character.
Acting: Colin Farrell has a charming presence but he lacks macho force, so when McBurney threatens the entire household of females with reprisal, he comes nowhere near the scariness of Eastwood. This makes it hard for us to sympathize as much as Coppola clearly wants us to with a poisoning intended as self-defense. And while Nicole Kidman, in the role of the headmistress, occasionally flashes that wicked smile we all know and love, it doesn’t seem in keeping with her character as Coppola has reconceived it.
Photography and editing: Coppola loves cinematic stillness as evidenced by her employment of lengthy shots, editing that promotes slow tempos, a quiet soundtrack with little or no music, few pans, no zooms. This has served her well in the past, and perhaps she thought that if she made the first three-quarters of The Beguiled hushed and mannerly, then the climactic scenes would be even more shocking. Instead, the result is schizoid, as if Little Women were trying to morph into Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Sofia Coppola is a generous and brilliant filmmaker, but her The Beguiled is becalmed.