Sofia Coppola received the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival for her film version of The Beguiled, adapted from a 1966 southern gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan. Her intriguing interpretation is complex and haunting, and impressive.
Barely had her film been released when critics and the viewing public began comparing it with Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same novel. Two very different directors with very different intentions in these cinematic versions of The Beguiled, released nearly half a century apart.
Cinematically this is a gorgeous film – sunrise, sunset, trees, laughter by candlelight.
For director Don Siegel, his film with Clint Eastwood in the role of the Union Army corporal was to be one of five collaborations, including the “Dirty Harry” character for which Eastwood is famous. In connection with filming The Beguiled, Siegel is quoted as saying that women have a basic desire to castrate men.
For director Sofia Coppola, this film hinges more on the classic misunderstanding between genders, as the wounded army veteran (Colin Farrell) plots his freedom while the school headmistress (Nicole Kidman) and her students try to retain theirs.
In this 1864 Virginia setting, with Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies surrounded by the distant sounds of Civil War battle between the blue (Union) and the gray (confederate), the headmistress and her second in command (Kirsten Dunst) are determined to maintain an atmosphere of upper-class gentility as they train their five remaining students in the art of being a southern lady.
And what was a “lady” back then, when slavery shaped southern perspectives? Plantation wife and mother Mary Boykin Chesnut wrote in her famous 1861 diary about the priorities and values of the women who marry plantation owners and who preside over captive slaves while turning a blind eye.
“There is no slave, after all like a wife.”
“All married women, all … girls who live in their father’s house are slaves.”
“Brutal men with unlimited power are the same all over the world.”
“I am always on the women’s side.”
“I do not allow myself vain regrets or foreboding.”
“The weight that lands upon our eyelids – is of lead.”
“Like the patriarchs of old our men live all in one house with their wives and their concubines, and the mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children.”
“Is anything worth it?”
Coppola has been criticized for dropping the slave character Hallie from her film. She has said her film is about gender and not race. However, the personalities and values of the women in the school are shaped indelibly by the rules governing slavery in their part of the United States.
Nicole Kidman is perfect as the headmistress secure in her duty to provide sanity in an insane world. By sheer will, she keeps the Civil War outside the gates of her school. Each day and evening Miss Martha or Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) stands on the balcony searching surrounding territory with a spyglass telescope to determine how close the war is that day.
Within those walls the students who remain receive an education in language and deportment. Since “all the slaves ran away” when the Civil War began, the two women and their five charges do their own housework, laundry and planting of edible crops. The youngest student, Amy, gathers mushrooms in a wicker basket. Sound of cicadas along with bird songs punctuate the silence, in addition to the sound of cannon and explosions from the War nearby. Searching for mushrooms, Amy discovers the wounded Union soldier sprawled under moss-covered trees.
The gathering of mushrooms for dinner both begins and ends this film about damaged characters coping with circumstances not of their making. How Miss Martha and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst in an outstanding performance) interact with each other and with Cpl. Burney as they struggle for meaning and safety forms the core of the film.
Director Coppola takes the audience into the period and location; understanding the setting is crucial to comprehending why the characters act as they do. While one can dismiss their behavior as something one would expect from Southern gothic, a closer observation reveals a more timeless element – how women survive in any world turned upside down – slavery, fundamentalism, war. Miss Martha and Miss Edwina and their five remaining charges have formed a family, and any man invades that family at his peril.
Rich details are embedded throughout the film, and are best appreciated when we recall the time and circumstances of the story.
Colin Farrell’s portrayal is realistic and moving – a recent immigrant who could not afford to pay the $300 needed to escape the military draft. Fresh from the battlefield and unable to walk, he relies on courtesy and humility as these southern women — foreign to his experience — rescue him and then debate his fate. Should he be hidden or turned over to the confederates as an enemy prisoner?
Cinematically this is a gorgeous film – sunrise, sunset, trees, laughter by candlelight. Music is used sparingly, mostly when the students practice in the living room after dinner. As each female character begins to focus on their exotic new visitor/prisoner, he in turn tries to figure out the best way to ensure his safety. Although raised to be pretty butterflies, these women have an iron will. This isolated boarding school is a battlefield unlike any other for Cpl. Burney, and any miscalculation will cost him dearly.
Sofia Coppola has been called the Velvet Hammer by one actor, a title she loves. Time Magazine has said Coppola brings empathy “to bear with the kind of gossamer lightness that demands precise thinking and definitive decisionmaking.”
Rich details are embedded throughout the film, and are best appreciated when we recall the time and circumstances of the story. How students and teachers sit together and talk while preparing food from the garden, the business and art of dressing for an important dinner, encouraging students with love as well as discipline, the (lost) art of conversation during dinner, the effect of brandy on the adults, prayer at the end of the day, the need to act as a team when significant decisions have been made, and how to keep the soldiers on both sides from invading the school.
The Beguiled [2017 version] is thoughtful, intriguing, and a reminder of how emotion can and does erupt from the smoothest of human exteriors during trying times. Recommended.