Sofia Coppola's Captivating & Confined 'The Beguiled'
Why did Sofia Coppola decide to remake Don Siegel's chilling 1971 cult movie?
Apparently, it was co-producer and production designer Anne Ross who first suggested she check out Thomas Cullinan's 1966 novel A Painted Devil for a potential adaptation. Although both movies were shot in Louisiana, Siegel's film was set in Mississippi, while the opening titles place Coppola's in Virginia (the estate used as the main location is actor Jennifer Coolidge's Madewood Plantation House). Whatever her original motivation, the relocation paid off, winning her the Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival - only the second time that a woman has won the prestigious award, following Yuliya Solntseva's Chronicle of Flaming Years back in 1961.
A highly-charged undertone of erotic tension flowed just below the surface of Siegel's Civil War tale of deception and horror in which one manipulative, lying Yankee is no match for a household full of deceptive and libidinous Southern belles. With the diverting alternate title of 'Pussy-Footing Down At The Old Plantation,' Clint Eastwood played the wounded Union soldier who is saved by a young schoolgirl. Full of sinewy interior monologues, and anticipating some of the male paranoia themes of Play Misty for Me, distinctly American Gothic tones of death and destruction coloured Siegel's title sequence, with Eastwood softly intoning a contemporary funeral dirge over horrific battleground stills.
According to Siegel's biography, he fought with Universal to retain the film's original ending in which the protagonist dies, and the studio grossly mishandled its release, marketing it as an action movie and disappointing fans of Eastwood's previous Westerns in the process. Siegel also suggested his movie should have had a slow release in small local theaters, and could then have developed into a moderate box office success, instead of the total bomb it rapidly became. Both Geraldine Page and Elizabeth Hartman put in masterful performances, before their careers were prematurely cut short in 1987 (Hartman battled depression for many years before jumping from her fifth-floor window at the of age forty-five, while Page died of a heart attack three days later). Eastwood also directed his first film during the production, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at Siegel's working methods called The Beguiled: The Storyteller.
Well aware of the cult status of Siegel's version, no less an authority than Quentin Tarantino recently hosted a double feature at LA's New Beverly Cinema. Coppola was in attendance and insisted that her film should not be considered simply as a remake of Siegel's, but rather as an adaption of Cullinan's original novel. She also stated Nicole Kidman was constantly in mind when writing the screenplay: "I think she's unique. It was like watching a virtuoso or an incredible athlete. We'd do a scene, and she'd have five different emotions going on at the same time." In her quest for greater authentic detail, Coppola put her actors through a variety of tutorials, including an embroidery, dancing, and corset-training lessons, as well as making them cook and eat their meals together (all of which constitute important plot elements in the final dénouement). A Civil War re-enactor demonstrated how to dress wounds and a priest explained prayers from the Book of Matthew. Coppola even distributed an etiquette book to the entire cast, entitled How to Be a Good Southern Lady.
Coppola cast the doe-eyed Colin Farrell as Corporal John McBurney, who is discovered in the woods by amateur mycologist Amy and brought to Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, where he disrupts the circumspect roundelay of French lessons, prayer, and music practice, provoking giddy chatter about “blue-bellies” coming at night to “raid our garden." Under the guise of Christian charity, the haughty Miss Martha tends to McBurney’s wounds while the other women vie for his affections. “You are not a guest,” she insists, “and we are not here to entertain you," although for a while the corporal seems to have captivated his hosts. But just who is beguiling whom?
Although Kidman’s southern accent wobbles occasionally, her performance remains characteristically surefooted and finely nuanced. Farrell negotiates McBurney’s shifts from sly charm to emasculated anger with equal ease, while Elle Fanning fizzes with untamed flirtatious energy. Coppola regular Kirsten Dunst plays the habitually disappointed Edwina with a downcast gaze, suggesting deep wells of melancholia stirred by wistful desire. “There is nothing more frightening than a startled woman with a gun,” reports Miss Martha, but it’s the perverse unity of this disarmingly disparate group that packs the real punch as the glimmering surface of their genteel world becomes increasingly pressurized and slowly fractures.
Farrell's lilting Irish brogue masks the deep sense of submerged rage and murderous duplicity that drives him to make a decision so myopic it can only result in catastrophe. He and Kidman began filming only a few weeks after they wrapped The Killing of a Sacred Deer and both films went on to compete for the Palme d'Or at Cannes (The Killing of a Sacred Deer shared the Screenplay Award with Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here). The scene in which she washes his wounds required repeated takes, as the sepulchral afternoon twilight began to fade, and when it was finally over, Farrell found Kidman had been sponging him down for almost two hours. Perhaps predictably, he later praised both his co-stars and director: "To be surrounded by talented, decent, smart, insightful creative and serious women - I was spoiled by Sofia Coppola who set a particular mood of comfort, ease and trust. It allows you as an actor to play and explore."
Soon after his recovery the oestrogen starts oozing and the sap begins to rise, as the cunning and caddish McBurney inevitably starts flirting with the febrile young women who have no menfolk around. As both masculine pronouns have been primly banished from their French lessons, and the only other male in the house is Amy's pet turtle, it is hardly surprising how rapidly they become obsessed by the virile man who is both reassuringly disabled and vulnerable to their tender mercies. It is a predictable recipe for disaster, and students of Chekhov’s law about what inevitably happens to firearms introduced in the First Act will doubtless be alarmed at the pistol left to Miss Martha by her father. Distant artillery sounds remind McBurney that the thunderstorm of war is never far away, but that's nothing compared to the retributive lightning strikes that inevitably head his way. When the emotional tempest finally breaks, a gunshot brings a chandelier crashing down; a necklace is wrenched from a female neck, its beads rolling precipitously across the floor; bodices are ripped, cotton bloomers burst open, and thighs are thrust apart; finally, McBurney falls down three flights of stairs and breaks his leg - none of which require any deeply Oedipal understanding to appreciate the macabre melodrama. The understated black humor is foreshadowed most clearly in a candlelit dinner scene, during which Miss Martha subtly reins in Edwina’s dawning self-confidence before turning to McBurney to inquire demurely, “Would you cay-uh for a digestif, corporal?”
Where Siegel alluded to the story’s fairytale undertones, Coppola places them front and center, reducing the Civil War to the sound of distant cannon fire. Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd’s use of an almost entirely static camera, retro 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and 35mm film stock fills the frame with dappled lights and gauzy lens-flares that gracefully evoke Coppola's trademark woozy, dreamy milieu. There is a plethora of classic Southern imagery shot in the seminary gardens and illuminated by slanting rays of golden sunlight. Long lenses place these characters deep within the lush landscape in the exterior shots, and shallow-focus close-ups evoke skin-prickling responses indoors, while sparse incidental music intertwines with plaintive bursts of song and the sounds of nature provide an incessant background thrum. As in The Virgin Suicides, the young women inhabit an isolated and self-contained environment, reminiscent of Jack Clayton’s The Innocents, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Carol Morley’s The Falling.
For her first feature not produced or executive-produced by her father, Coppola has said she chose the unusual aspect ratio because she wanted to stress claustrophobic atmosphere of the film. It's entirely understandable why she cut the more lurid touches of Grand Guignol (including flashbacks to incest and rape, hallucinatory threesomes, and overt child abuse) that gave such an exploitation edge to Siegel's B-movie. More puzzling is her excision of a key character in Cullinan’s novel, an enslaved black woman named Mattie. Renamed Hallie and powerfully portrayed by Mae Mercer, she had the measure of Page’s twisted Miss Martha and Eastwood’s slippery McBurney, providing a scathing sociopolitical commentary on the conflicts raging both inside and outside the seminary - “white man’s the same everywhere in this world."
Coppola has suggested slavery is such an important topic that she did not want to touch it, preferring to focus instead on the neurotic coven of white women who remain so isolated from the rest of the world. Despite all the attention to production design and period detail, her film seems to exist in a timeless limbo, throwing us simultaneously back to the court of Marie Antionette and forward to the bad girls of The Bling Ring, in a manner more haunted than historical. By deleting the backstory of Miss Martha's incestuous relationship with her brother and the various flashbacks to sexual fantasies that form the basis of her motivation, however, Coppola also strips away much of the earlier film's disturbing force, fermenting a darkly farcical atmosphere instead.
The result is a captivating and confined movie that sometimes seems more concerned with portraying the characters' pastel pink and blue costumes, rather than investigating their inner demons. Costume designer Stacey Battat saw Dunst's character as an incurable romantic and deliberately draped her in billowy sleeves, diaphanous skirts, and more jewelry than the others. She dressed Kidman in a high neckline, pinched corsets, and a vest in order to suggest a sense of authority, and added ruffles to the costumes of Elle Fanning's character because they "really accentuate her horniness." With a ridiculously short shooting schedule of only twenty-six days, Battat faced an immediate crisis when her original creations were ruined after someone left bleach in the washing machine and she had to rush their recreation in order to avoid schedule overruns.
Coppola also displays a rather disconcerting predilection for depicting feathery trees smothered in Spanish moss, which are shot from at every conceivable angle and for protracted periods of time, literally stifling the life out of all the exterior scenes. Maybe Coppola intention was to create a sustained visual metaphor for her characters' sense of social seclusion and cloistered incubation, wrapping up their sexual inhibitions in a suffocating cocoon of cottonwood. Or maybe she just liked the way the stuff the looks.