Cannes 2017: Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled

“Sofia Coppola delivers a very enjoyable southern melodrama, the tale of a handsome, badly wounded Union soldier in enemy terrain during the American civil war who throws himself on the mercy of a ladies’ seminary—of all the outrageous things.” The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw: “Their inhabitants are all of a decorous flutter at the idea of this semi-unclothed male to whom they must minister, intimately.”

“Ruthlessly shorn from Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel of the same name (and not remade from the Don Siegel adaptation that first brought its story to the screen), The Beguiled is a lurid, sweltering, and sensationally fun potboiler that doesn’t find Coppola leaving her comfort zone so much as redecorating it with a fresh layer of soft-core scuzz,” writes IndieWire’s David Ehrlich. “The year is 1864, the Civil War still rages on despite the outcome growing more certain by the day, and—somewhere amidst the unloved willow trees that surround the Great Dismal Swamp of southeastern Virginia—seven women of various ages are cooped up in a schoolhouse like chickens waiting to be plucked.”

“Coppola’s version abounds in pleasures,” grants Jessica Kiang at the Playlist, “from the starry cast (at least four of whom almost coincidentally seem to be hitting their career-best strides at exactly the same moment) to Philippe Le Sourd‘s cinematography, all misty woods, dangling creepers and softly sparkling candlelit interiors.” But “it feels strangely unkinked and scrubbed clean: stiff-backed and proper, with its hair tucked into neat braids and its crinolines smoothed down. Coppola can be breathtakingly modernist, and often complicates and challenges her own unparalleled instincts for filmmaking of ballerina elegance and classicism. But The Beguiled only ever lets its freak flag fly at half mast, and, certainly until the end where some very enjoyable archness is allowed to creep in, this Southern Gothic tale of female sexual jealousy feels surprisingly old school.”

“Its tone owes far less to Siegel’s lurid southern gothic romp than the languid, hazy rhythms of Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), which were also heavily detectable in Coppola’s own 1999 feature debut, The Virgin Suicides,” suggests the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin.

“The world in question is Miss Martha Farnsworth’s School for Girls,” writes Sophie Monks Kaufman for Little White Lies. “Behind locked gates, in a beautiful, white-pillared building, five schoolgirls—including seductress-in-the-making Alicia (Elle Fanning)—are taught French, sewing, music and other ladylike pursuits by exacting headmistress, Martha (Nicole Kidman) and her assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst). . . . Into this microcosm of feminine civilizations comes enemy soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). Brought in after the youngest girl, Emily (Emma Howard), finds him wounded in the woods, the Corporal initially thinks he’s been delivered to the promised land. . . . Coppola’s achievement here is the creation of a tone that is perfectly poised between straight-laced good behavior and the sexual impulses throbbing beneath. That, more or less, is the film.”

“Farrell exudes such soulful sincerity that every kindness McBurney utters to the women feels genuine,” writes Screen’s Tim Grierson. “Just as formidable is Kidman, who plays Martha as a woman who perhaps grasps that her world of genteel privilege is fading away, a realization that infuses everything she does with bittersweet resignation.”

“Apologies to Colin Farrell, but this is Kidman's movie,” adds John Bleasdale at CineVue.

“The director of Lost in Translation and The Bling Ring dials down the potential for steaminess, violence and easy shocks and opts for a more controlled, gently simmering tension,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun. “There’s none of the pop-song period flavor of Marie Antoinette (there’s barely any music early in the film; later, a restrained score by Phoenix kicks in) . . . The Beguiled has its jolts and its laughs, but mostly this glides along like a mildly cheeky, poetically made parable, well dressed, well designed and well performed.”

“I count myself as a Coppola believer (I even liked her Hollywood art ramble Somewhere),” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman, “but this may be the first film she has made in which her essential personality as a director gets buried under the movie she’s making. She has ‘feminized’ The Beguiled to the point that she has really just pummeled it into the shape of a prestige movie, one that ends with a telling tableau of the film’s female characters posed in formation, like some Civil War sorority of the newly woke. Coppola, in attempting to elevate the material, doesn’t seem to realize that The Beguiled is, and always was, a pulp psychodrama. Now it’s pulp with the juice squeezed out of it.”

Variety’s Ramin Setoodeh talks with Coppola and Dunst, who “have fostered an unbreakable bond over the past two decades and four movies.”

Updates, 5/25: “This Beguiled is neither anti-man nor anti-woman,” argues Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “It’s easy to see why McBurney, devious as he is, is unmoored as a lone man among women. . . . Eventually, he’ll come to see these women as an organism ready to eat him whole. But if they do feel hunger, it’s not inherently evil, but rather a forlorn thing stoked by years of loneliness.”

“Despite being directed by a woman determined to reimagine an old chestnut, The Beguiled is not precisely a female empowerment narrative,” writes Richard Porton at the Daily Beast. “While there is a glint in Nicole Kidman’s eye when she proposes a solution to forever curb her guest’s male hubris, both men and women in this movie are revealed as ineradicably flawed.”

Lawrence Garcia in the Notebook: “The web of intrigue, deceit and jealousy—mainly between Miss Martha, Miss Edwina and Alicia (Elle Fanning), the eldest and most seductive of the students—is so loosely drawn that the decisive turn the story takes possesses very little heft; it's somehow both flat and risible when it should be ridiculous, horrific and shocking all at once. That's largely due to the direction, which finds Coppola bending the potboiler drama to her more ethereal, composed style, but can also be traced to the performances of the ensemble cast.”

For A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club, the film’s “soft, mysterious luster recalls one of Terence Davies’s trips to pre-modernity; it’s a magnificently shot movie, and often a very funny one, as tense dinners with the stranger from the North transform into duels of innuendo. A drama at heart about how we rationalize the decisions our hearts (and loins) make, The Beguiled is, well, beguiling enough to make me wish that it had a little more meat on its bones.”

“The problem is I’m not sure what movie it is, and why it is at all,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “As a thrilling yarn, it’s too campy to be suspenseful; as a revenge movie, it’s too polite to feel rewarding. It’s ‘about’ men and women in the way that a shoe store is ‘about’ shoes: It has them.”

“The women of this film are distinguished from Siegel’s female characters by their relatively complex emotions,” argues Simon Abrams at the House Next Door, where he describes “how, with one quick reaction shot, Coppola grants her female characters more agency, recognizing that their neuroses are no longer just symptomatic of the hellish nature of war. In this version of The Beguiled, sexual frustration results from a comical refusal to accept one’s desires for what they are: the stuff of human instinct.”

At Ioncinema, Nicholas Bell finds that “this new version retains the narrative’s general air of perversity but foregoes the formidable textures which made the earlier version so bold.”

“The rough-around-the-edges Farrell—who looks devastating after a quick shave—is a fine fit for the role,” finds Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage, “and Coppola cleverly exploits the actor’s Dublin accent to suggest that McBurney is a new recruit, perhaps a mercenary, who has been enlisted straight off the immigration boat.”

Indeed, in the Irish Times,Donald Clarke notes that “Corporal John McBurney took another soldier’s place for $300 when he was ‘just off the boat.’ He has no moral or personal investment in this conflict. Now he has an opportunity for fleshy gain.”

But the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy argues that “Farrell doesn’t do all that much with the part, suffering painfully through the first stretch and not revealing anything behind the eyes to suggest what his scheming character might be cooking up. Eastwood had far more presence and subtlety in the role.”

“I love the spareness of Coppola’s interpretation, its curt but still expressive manner of speaking,” writes Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson. “It has snap and vigor where so many other Cannes entries this year have been leaden and overstuffed.”

More from Diego Lerer (in Spanish), Shelagh Rowan-Legg (ScreenAnarchy), and Barbara Scharres ( And Sophie Monks Kaufman talks with Coppola for Little White Lies.

Updates, 5/26: “The character dynamics transfix—particularly the interplay between headmistress Miss Martha (Kidman) and teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, excellent as always)—but I was most taken with the way Coppola uses style to create meaning,” writes the Village Voice’s Bilge Ebiri. “In the first half, we hear but almost never see bombs in the distance, a regular reminder of the battlefield’s proximity. As the story becomes darker and more violent, Coppola often cuts to exterior shots of the seminary, and we hear the shouting and stomping come from inside the building—as if the war has finally infiltrated the grounds and these girls’ reality.”

“Coppola isn’t a minimalist, exactly, but as in Lost in Translation and Somewhere, she demonstrates an economy of form and plot that tends to get mistaken for insubstantiality,” writes the Los Angeles TimesJustin Chang. “More directors could learn something from her eye for the spare, telling detail, as well as her seeming allergy to narrative bloat. In The Beguiled, she once again practices the fine art of narrative subtraction, this time in service of an understated yet purposeful feminist reading.”

“Difficult to make your characters as sympathetic as they are here if they’re ordering slaves about,” notes Isabel Stevens, dispatching to Sight & Sound, “and Coppola ducks the challenge with an early mention that the slaves left the school long ago. Siegel’s version by contrast had managed to work a fairly progressive take, with Mea Mercer’s defiant Hallie his film’s most winning character.”

“A couple of years ago, when interviewing Sofia Coppola for a forthcoming book, I told her how much I loved the male objectification in her films,” recalls Miriam Bale, writing for W. “‘Yeah, I love that,’ she said with relish. ‘Have you seen The Beguiled?’ . . . The Beguiled is Coppola's most clearly cinephilic film, and it's also her most overtly feminist, a delicious retort to Siegel's original.”

“Kidman nicely bridges the gap between Coppola’s more tasteful inclinations and the pulpy source material,” write Kyle Buchanan and Jada Yuan at Vulture. “It’s a performance with comic calibrations that never tips its hand too far in that direction: Like a good southern lady, Kidman knows how to tuck her shade into a polite nicety, and she’s never better than when she lets a faint, mischievous half-smile play on her lips.”

For Ali Moosavi, writing for Film International, this Beguiled “is an improvement over the original and Coppola’s best film since Lost in Translation.

The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s posted a conversation with Coppola about The Bling Ring from 2013 (43’43”).

Update, 5/27: “Ms. Coppola hews close to the Siegel film in some respects, but she goes moody where he went outrageous and drains the story of both its heat and its sexism for something cooler,” writes the New York TimesManohla Dargis. She then turns to Kirsten Dunst: “‘I could see why she was attracted to this story,’ she said of Ms. Coppola, ‘but also why she wanted to tell it from a different perspective. It’s very old school. It’s like Clint Eastwood and his buddy making a movie. Well, now it’s Sofia and her buddies making a movie.’”

Update, 6/24: For its latest episode of the Close-Up, the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s posted audio from its recent Evening with Sofia Coppola (71’37”). Recently writing about The Beguiled are Richard Brody (New Yorker), Cassie da Costa (4Columns), Allyson Johnson (Notebook), Christian Lorentzen (New Republic), and Carrie Rickey (New York Times). For more, see Critics Round Up.

Update, 7/4: Writing for Film Comment,Farran Smith Nehme suggests that “Coppola’s screenplay meticulously softens or eliminates everything that was bold and frightening about Don Siegel’s 1971 film version.”

Update, 7/8: “Siegel’s Beguiled was an expression of male hysteria (anxiety is too mild a word to characterize its juicy claustrophobic tumult),” writes J. Hoberman for the New York Review of Books. “Coppola’s version is a dark comedy of manners.”

Update, 7/10: “As a black southern woman who has an overall tepid response to Coppola’s work, I had my guard up when I first saw the film, given the outrage that swelled around it,” writes Angelica Jade Bastién for Vulture. “Could The Beguiled have taken a more unflinching approach to the history of the Civil War–era South and its lingering scars that affected black people most acutely? Undoubtedly. But Coppola isn’t the filmmaker to do so—her greatest strength and weakness has always been her myopia.” Further in: “It’s important to consider The Beguiled in the context of cinematic southern belles, from the romantic leads of classic Hollywood to the brutal savagery of Sarah Paulson’s plantation mistress in 12 Years a Slave, because the film’s power comes into focus when doing so.” Special attention is paid to John Huston’s In This Our Life (1942) with Bette Davis.

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