Don Siegel’s 1971 film The Beguiled, which came out the same year as his film Dirty Harry, is a weird pseudo-sexual thriller that seems like it always has one foot on the brakes. Much of that hesitation could be the constriction of the era. The film tries to push the boundaries of what an erotic thriller could be, but it never holds the confidence of its convictions. The film begins as a dreamy southern gothic tale woven in a Civil War era women’s school that slowly and methodically turns into a twisted tale of sexual repression and regression. Within minutes of the film beginning, Clint Eastwood’s John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier, is rescued by a girl no older than twelve. As a group of soldiers passes by, McBurney leans over and kisses the girl on the mouth, there is the practical reason of keeping the girl silent; however, this moment establishes off the bat the sordid world that this movie inhabits. When the film premiered forty-six years ago, this must have been a moment of contention with the audiences and could be one of the reasons the film didn’t make much money. While there are practical reasons for the kiss, it is hard to not think that McBurney is getting off on it in some way. When the two of them get back to the women’s school, McBurney is kept as a prisoner in a minimal sense. He can’t move much, so he is imprisoned within himself, but he is constantly being monitored by all the woman in the house. From here on out, the movie revolves around McBurney’s sexual and non-sexual relationship with the woman. There is something transgressive about this film and even at nearly fifty years old, it sneaks up on the viewer with moments of true oddity. Paramount on that list is a moment when the incapacitated McBurney is having a conversation through blinds. He is barely visible and the perspective of the shot shows that he is below someone, while, in reality, he is above them. It is the type of moment of visual trickery that Siegel lingers on time and time again. This image plays with the film’s direct and complicated relationship with feminism. On one hand, the women in this film are seen completely independent and self-sufficient, but when McBurney enters the picture a few of the women become fixated upon him as a sexual object. Now, much of this desire for sexual dominance over him is to retain power in the situation that they are all in. It is interesting to see Eastwood in this film. Other than his good looks, he is emasculated by the women and Siegel strips all his power away. Eastwood has a storied presence on screen that relies on his rugged good looks and stoic presence as a man defined by his masculinity. Siegel understood how Eastwood was perceived and used that to demystify male sexuality. I don’t see a world in which this 1971 film would have crafted much of an audience, at least with Eastwood as the star. In the hands of a male director, the gender politics are a little muddy. He crafts incredible female characters that are then buoyed by a story that turns them into impish sirens or into buttoned-up prudes. Siegel’s film is an interesting exploration of atmosphere and sordid fun but there is always something that seems to be stretching the seams of the film just begging to explode on screen. Sofia Coppola creates dense worlds in her films. They are tricky places to visit because they exist just next to ours, but not quite in it. Her hotel in Lost in Translation becomes a myopic purgatory for the two characters. The Virgin Suicides builds an insular world that revolves around the burgeoning sexuality of five sisters as seen through the veil of men looking back upon the experience of being raised in the same town. Or, there is the complete lack of the French Revolution in Marie Antoinette. Now, Sofia Coppola creates her newest world, a Civil War fable set at a young woman’s school that has been taken over by a most unwelcome visitor in the virile but wounded Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell). The woman’s school is run by Nicole Kidman’s Miss Martha, and it is one of rituals and quietly held rivalries that are cut open like a surgeon with the arrival of Corporal McBurney. All the woman and girls are pulled into his gravitational pull. The film hinges upon these rivalries and the way McBurney brings out the true personality of all the woman. McBurney uses all these rivalries to his exact calculations by befriending Miss Martha just enough so that she will allow him to stay or by promising to shepherd Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) away from this school and the war, and finally accepting the playful advances of Alicia (Elle Fanning). Colin Farrell, unlike Clint Eastwood, plays McBurney as an opportunist that understands his misfortune instead of a man with a throbbing libido. McBurney is an object of desire in this film and the audience understands why. There is a scene in which Miss Martha gives him a sponge bath and it is almost comical how Coppola layers the entire scene with sex. The act becomes so enrapturing that Miss Martha needs to splash herself with water before fainting at Farrell’s body drenched in sweat and carefully placed dirt. Coppola understands exactly the film she is making. It feels wrong to call this a remake or an adaptation. Coppola is walking a new trail that narrows the story to the exact parts that she wants. Though the sound of cannons can be heard in the distant fields, we never see any ravages of the battle. There has been a controversy hovering around this film dealing with the lack of slaves and in particular the lack of the only slave from the ’71 film. I think that Coppola calls attention to the lack of slaves in nearly every frame. The exterior of the home is in complete disarray. There are dead leaves and the young privileged girls are forced to do physical chores like weeding the garden. By keeping slaves out of the story, Coppola highlights that the usual institutionalized oppression isn’t at play. I don’t know if this was a choice that Coppola made consciously, but Coppola was in a tricky position either direction she went. Her story extracted the beats from the original that she wanted. She noticeably dropped the incestuous story surrounding Miss Martha as well as discarding any scenes prior to the war. Coppola isn’t precious with changing any piece of this story. The Beguiled may be the most assuredly acted of any of her films. Dunst is perfect at portraying a sense of inwardness that is only multiplied by Fanning’s budding hormones and full flung approach into womanhood. Farrell is outstanding as Corporal McBurney. He subtly calibrates his performance to match whichever woman he is talking to. It isn’t till late in the film that we really know whether he is a good man in a tricky situation or a bad man in a situation that he can manipulate. Kidman is the standout here though. She is primly manicured and proper, but she has a side to her that she is unable to let the girls see. Kidman wonderfully presents a woman that is stuck in a time and place that she is not quite meant to be in. Amongst all the performances is the lush design. Coppola creates this version of 1864 Virginia as only she can. The spindled fingers of moss-laden trees seem to be grasping at the characters and bringing them further into this rabbit hole of hidden desires. The interiors of the film are painterly in their use of muted lighting and hazy glow that illuminates every nighttime scene. The dead leaves surround this house as if to say that we are, as in Lost in Translation, in a kind of purgatory. This isn’t Coppola’s best film, but it is a bold step in a new direction. The film, until very late, is music free and even when it is employed it is merely tones and not full compositions. This is a Coppola land that we haven’t seen before. All of her preoccupations are here, but she goes about them in a manner that shows a filmmaker growing exponentially. Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related One Response rosie1843 January 25, 2018 I thought the 2017 film was a bloodless adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel. And I thought it was crap. Log in to Reply Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.