Film Review: “The Beguiled” — Sofia Coppola’s Bewitching, Beleaguered Remake

The Beguiled is a beautifully-shot, atmospheric thriller with a daring take on sexual autonomy and dynamics.

The Beguiled directed by Sofia Coppola. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, AMC Boston, and other movie houses throughout New England.

A scene from "The Beguiled."

Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell in a scene from “The Beguiled.”

By Peg Aloi

The opening shots of The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola’s new remake of the 1971 thriller of the same name, gives us the film’s title in curvy, pale pink script, superimposed in front of huge twisted trees dripping with Spanish moss. We hear a young girl singing in the background. That same style of lettering was used in two other prominent ’70s films: pink in Roman Polanksi’s Rosemary’s Baby from 1968 (which also opens with the childlike singing of Mia Farrow and a zoom-in shot of the Dakota building in NYC), and white in Peter Weir’s 1975 Picnic at Hanging Rock (there are shots of nature and a teenage girl speaking softly, briefly, before the jarring sound of pan flutes comes up). The tonal and thematic similarities among these films are notable, almost uncannily so.

Coppola’s first brilliant move in remaking Don Siegel’s cult classic (one of several collaborations with Clint Eastwood) was to reinvent that film’s aesthetic, giving it a dreamy, sensual, haunting quality. Her second was to play off of a trio of masterworks by male directors that explore the mystical world of the feminine, of repressed female power and smoldering sexuality. The corseted primness of the women and girls pushes against the wild, sensual mystery of the settings in both versions of The Beguiled. The dark colors of the 1971 costume designs are updated to pristine Victorian whites and pastels, which evokes Weir’s film in particular. The notion of girls being cloistered from the world of men also dominates the cinematic quartet. Despite being a modern character, Rosemary is also a prisoner, though of a different sort, bound by cultural expectations about marriage and childbirth that are challenged by the “modern” trends of women’s liberation and the occult revival. I’d be surprised if Weir’s and Polanski’s films did not directly influence Coppola’s remake of The Beguiled.

I saw the 1971 film on TV several times in my precocious youth, and its erotic undertones and sinister plot twists linger with me. Films that deal with adolescent sexuality that one views while young oneself have a distinctly formative effect, and I admit being thrilled to hear Coppola that was doing a remake, wondering how she’d deal with this juicy story of lust and betrayal. My favorite films of Coppola’s also happen to be her period pieces: The Virgin Suicides, her somber, dreamy adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’s best-selling novel, and Marie Antoinette, a rollicking, anachronistic, ambitious biopic. Both films starred Kirsten Dunst, who also stars in The Beguiled.

When Coppola won the Best Director prize at Cannes this spring, making her only the second woman in history to win the award, the milestone was almost immediately undercut by attacks in social media, which honed in on two particular points of controversy. First, it was asserted that Coppola was a failure as a feminist filmmaker; she admitted in an interview that she didn’t know what the Bechdel Test was. Second, her decision to omit an African-American slave character featured in the original film was met with scorn, a critique compounded by charges about her “obsession” with privileged white women.

Frankly, I find the social media dog-piling repulsive, but it’s a fair point that Coppola’s filmography focuses on white characters. (But sheesh, have ya seen a movie lately, people? It’s an industry-wide problem.) I think the takeaway here should be, as ever, that it is not only annoying but dangerous for people to lash out at films before they see them. Another thought: not every filmmaker can be everything to everyone. Does Hollywood have a problem/obsession with white male dominance? Surely. Is it Coppola’s responsibility to tackle that burden entirely on her own? Nope. But if this controversy influences her storytelling from here on (particularly its view of identity politics) than some good will have come out of the fracas. Until then, let’s take her film on its merits: it’s a beautifully-shot, atmospheric thriller with a fairly daring take on sexual autonomy and dynamics.

This character-driven tale is based on a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan (its original title was The Painted Devil). John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a Yankee soldier who is wounded near a Southern girls’ school; he is discovered by young Amy (Oona Lawrence) while she’s out gathering mushrooms. She helps him hobble back to the school, where headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) decides they must help the soldier and keep his presence a secret from the passing Confederate troops until his leg is healed. There are fewer than a dozen females at the school, ranging in age from pre-teen to the forty-ish Martha (a role played by earth goddess Geraldine Page in 1971). The younger girls are somewhat frightened of the soldier (except for the tomboyish, friendly Amy), but teenage Amelia (Elle Fanning) has a gleam in her eye and takes every opportunity to catch a glimpse of him, which is not easy since Miss Martha keeps his room locked and forbids anyone but her head teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, reprising Elizabeth Hartman’s role) to tend him.

Clint Eastwood, who made Dirty Harry with Siegel that same year, was compelling in 1971 (his scenes with Jo Ann Harris, who played 17 year old Carol/Alicia, are white-hot). But the casting of Colin Farrell in the remake is a stroke of genius: his John McBurney as a charming, wordsmithy Irish immigrant who went to war as a desperate attempt to escape poverty. Farrell’s mercurial warmth makes the character far more sympathetic than Eastwood’s figure, who was kind of an opportunistic asshole.

Clint Eastwood and Elizabeth Hartman in a scene from the 1971 version of "The Beguiled."

Clint Eastwood and Elizabeth Hartman in a scene from the 1971 version of “The Beguiled.”

At first, only Miss Martha interacts with McBurney, partly out of her need to protect the younger girls, but her time alone with McBurney has a marked effect on her. She becomes flushed and short of breath as she washes his near-naked body. As he convalesces, McBurney’s banter bewitches the women and girls, who are aroused by his presence, competing for his praise and attention. This yearning is particularly intriguing when seen among the younger girls, whose curiosity and burgeoning sexuality are not as easily repressed or contained as their elders. One student notes cattily that Edwina is wearing more jewelry than usual, and when McBurney praises her beauty and speaks tenderly to her, she has trouble hiding her feelings. 17 year old Alicia flirts more openly, the wayward curl on her forehead signifying her wantonness; Fanning is delicious in this small role, a sensual pre-Raphaelite nymph straining at the confines of Southern propriety.

McBurney starts to help out in the garden, pruning the roses while hobbling on crutches. Perhaps he is thinking that if he makes himself useful he won’t be court martialed for deserting. He courts Edwina, feeding her desire to leave and start over elsewhere. The grand house is impressively oppressive, with a pale yellow light suffusing its rooms, the surrounding landscape a brooding tangle of lush trees and morning mist. The grounds have a feminine vibe, not unlike the aura surrounding Hanging Rock, the geological antipodean formation, phallic and imposing, that’s so alluring to the lost group of Victorian schoolgirls in Picnic at Hanging Rock. What McBurney’s presence suggests to the girls sequestered at this Southern school is similarly spellbinding: a still-mysterious male world where they will be asked to test their talents and wiles.

Vying for his attention, the women and girls become increasingly hostile with one another. Meanwhile, the wounded McBurney’s charismatic hold over them is no match for their physical advantage. His masculine charms curdle into angry, bitter rage, while the women remain distinctly cool as they weigh his fate. The performances are effective all around, though I think Kidman and Dunst are somewhat miscast (though, with Fanning, they create an interesting visual trio of blonde ice princesses). Kidman is more prim and proper than Page’s surly, sensual Martha; and compared to Elizabeth Hartman’s explosive, emotional performance, Dunst is somewhat drab. The film also lacks the erotic tension of the original — despite the sexual star power of its leads. Or maybe I am just not as, ah, impressionable as I was when I saw it in my teenage years.

More than one trailer for the film (nodding naughtily to the over-the top 1971 versions) seems to suggest that the film is camp, prompting silly comparisons to Stephen King’s Misery. The power struggle is an important element; but there’s much more going on here, including subtle commentary on how women’s visions of their autonomy and agency are irretrievably bound up in sex. I think it would be a shame if political complaints and female-on-male sadism were all this film is remembered for. This is a wonderfully spooky period piece: those unfamiliar with the original film will see what the fuss is all about. For those like me, deeply imprinted by Siegel’s version, Coppola’s reimagining is beguilingly satisfying.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” has recently been moved to a new domain:

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