Monday, July 10, 2017


Sofia Coppola's remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film, THE BEGUILED, is shorn of much of its historicity and hysteria, and teeters dangerously close to absurdity.  That is survives to become an enjoyable viewing experience is down to the evocative, romantic cinematography of Philippe le Sourd, a delicate score from Phoenix, and its perfect casting.

The story is based on a pulpy Southern gothic novel by Thomas Cullinan, and is set in Civil War Virginia.  A brutally injured Union soldier called McBurney (Colin Farrell) has deserted the battlefield and is rescued by a young schoolgirl at a pretentious plantation seminary run by two teachers and five girls who have no safe homes to go too.  McBurney may be crippled, but his charm is in tact, and he lays it on thick to ensure that the ladies don't turn him in to the Southern army or force him to find his own regiment. And the ladies are no less collusive in the decision to keep him on, justifying their own decisions in the echo chamber that is the claustrophobic schoolroom.  Each of them is beguiled - the younger girls claim special friendships - the teenager Miss Alicia (Elle Fanning) flirts with him outrageously - the younger teacher Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) harbours dreams of marriage but secretly wants sexual fulfilment - and the headmistress, Miss Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), seems to delight in the sheer companionship of an adult, but also comes close to a kiss. 

For much of the film's running time, it's almost painful to watch the gauche flirtations of these repressed women, and Coppola deliberately plays the movie for laughs at the expense of our protagonist.  I found her stepping too close to the line - if we merely find these ladies absurd how can we engage in their emotional journey?  But in the final act, she makes a kind of attempt at a feminist pose, seeing the ladies once more come together to restore their composure - making a co-operative decision from youngest to oldest - with a kind of sisterhood brutality that belies the pleated crinoline and lace. 

Of the performances, Colin Farrell is perfectly cast as the charming and honestly cowardly McBurney.  Coppola's film is more sympathetic to his fear of returning to the battlefront and even his fear of entrapment by the women.  I also liked Elle Fanning as the flirty teen.  Kirsten Dunst is superb as the restrained, shy but ultimately forthright Miss Edwina. Nicole Kidman was more predictable in that role she often plays - the prim, restrained, cool beauty.  And the younger girls were all excellent - with particular praise for Addison Riecke who plays a precocious Miss Marie, ever willing to point out the hypocrisy of her teacher who chides her for dressing up when all the other girls are. Where the cast falls down is in the uneven use of Southern accents.  Elle Fanning is most directly out of the GONE WITH THE WIND school of exaggerated Southern Belle accents, Kirsten Dunst doesn't bother at all, and Nicole Kidman veers from posh British, to hints of Irish to hints of Southern, often within the same sentence. 

Still, for all the deliberately uncomfortable mockery and wandering accents, the film works because it looks and sounds ravishing.  From the dappled sunlight falling through trees on this decaying mansion to the carefully posed tableaux of beautiful girls in stunning dresses, this is Coppola at her best - from THE VIRGIN SUICIDES to MARIE-ANTOINETTE - observing claustrophobic groups of women  and following every subtle change in their emotional relationships. In order to do so, Coppola chooses to jettison everything that isn't central to that observation, including the issue of slavery.  I had no problem with this as it was worked into the narrative in a credible (and indeed historically accurate) way.  Moreover, the artist has no obligation to give a broad historical sweep to every film that happens to be set in the Civil War. Indeed, this is arguably not a film concerned with the war at all but rather a sociological experiment being observed, somehow outside the particular bounds of time and place. 

THE BEGUILED has a running time of 94 minutes and is rated R. The film played Cannes 2017 and opens in the USA on June 23rd, in Germany on June 29th, in Greece on July 6th, in Australia and the UK on July 14th, in Estonia on July 14th, in Estonia on July 21st, in Singapore on July 27th, in Taiwan on July 28th, in Spain on August 18th, in France on August 23rd, in Brazil on August 24th, in Hungary on August 31st, in Poland and Sweden on September 1st, in Hong Kong and Netherlands on September 7th, in Italy on September 14th and in Argentina on October 26th.

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