Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ Is an Elegant, Gothic Potboiler


Sofia Coppola’s remake/reinterpretation of The Beguiled does not open, as the original did, with Civil War photographs and the drums and sounds of battle, but the war is ever-present — via the distant cannon fire that’s heard under many of the outdoor scenes (and that provides, along with the birds singing in the nearby woods, the film’s only musical score in the first hour or so). Those cannons inject tension into the proceedings before anything has even happened, while everyone is being polite and Christian. Then they get friendlier. And then things get really fucked up.

Don Siegel’s 1971 original featured his frequent star Clint Eastwood as Colonel John McBurney, a deserting Union soldier in Confederate territory, wounded badly in battle and brought back to a women’s boarding school to recover before, presumably, being turned over to his enemy. Colin Farrell takes over the role, keeping his Irish accent and putting it to full use; listen to how he wraps it around a “darlin’,” or lilts to one of his caretakers, “In all my travels, I’ve never come across such a delicate beauty as yours.”

He’s a master manipulator, so when he senses the recipient of that compliment, the schoolteacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, excellent), longs for romance and escape, he presents himself as the answer to her prayers. And with the same kind of instinctual precision, he goes to work on every woman in the place, varying his approach so he can appeal to them – and they, in turn, can fulfill whatever desire he imagines for them.

What Coppola brings to this material – aside from her specific aesthetic gifts, about which more presently – that director Siegel or author Thomas Cullinan (who penned the original novel) could only guess at was the power of the female gaze, and how these characters’ repressed desires, in a hothouse atmosphere like this, could scramble an already delicate situation. She lingers on how the women overdress for their first dinner with the recovering Yankee, and the details of their preparation for it; when Nicole Kidman, as the matriarch and overseer of the school, bathes McBurney to clean his wounds, it’s done in a long, silent scene that lends equal weight to his bare flesh and her struggle not to be aroused by it (or by his low-key, roguish charm in their subsequent interactions).

Coppola also makes the intriguing decision to keep her characters’ intentions cloudier for longer — not just in the case of McBurdy (who, in the original, helps himself to a kiss from a 12-year-old in his very first scene), but his primary playmate Alicia (Elle Fanning), who here initially hides her hot-bloodedness with contempt. It’s not that we don’t know what he’s up to; there’s just enough of a gleam in his eye to betray his intentions, particularly as he goes about making himself useful, strategically summing up the work he could do, and letting that information dangle from the conversation he has with Kidman about when (and if) he leaves. He presents himself as good and valuable, which makes his shift into desperation and menace all the more harrowing.

So there’s a lot going on here, and the filmmaker is up to the challenge. She is, after all, tackling a male text on the horrors of a group of women alone, and doesn’t shrink from its implications. (“Look what you’ve done to me!” he bellows. “I’m not even a man any more!”) But she makes it her own, carefully capturing the women’s attitudes towards the uninvited guest via sparing yet clever use of the subjective camera – we see the way they each look at him, and how he can’t help himself looking in return, gazing upon that dining room table of lonely women like a starving wolf. (She also, rather controversially, excises the character of slave maid Hattie – a mistake to these eyes not because it “whitewashes the Civil War,” but because Hattie’s cynical interactions with McBurney add some variety to his deceptions.)

Coppola embraces the story’s candlelight and candelabra aesthetic with vigor, and the staging of their last supper is brilliant (for a working illustration of Hitchcock’s theory on the differences in suspense, compare that scene here with how it’s played in the original). Beguiled ’17 is not as straight-up weird as the ’71 version; it’s a comparatively muted movie stylistically, as Coppola is (surprisingly, perhaps) more of a classical filmmaker than the much older Siegel. She uses the material to make an elegant, tasteful picture – darkly funny in spots, but mostly without the horror-movie intensity of the original. Yet she amps up the psychological terror, letting us not only hear McBurney howling and crashing around in his room, but see the women’s terrified reactions to it. He’s locked in his room, but they’re the prisoners. For a time.

“The Beguiled” is out Friday in limited release.