Thursday, July 6, 2017

SOUTHERN COMFORT: a review of "The Beguiled"

Based upon the novel A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan
and the film "The Beguiled" (1971) 
Screenplay Written by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp   
Directed by Don Seigel
Written and Directed by Sofia Coppola
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

For Exhibit B in my plea to the cinematic powers that be, as well as to all of you, as to why we still need to have strong, auteur directors and filmmakers creating movies, I gladly turn your attention to Ms. Sofia Coppola and her latest effort, the dark, atmospheric, grim Southern Gothic drama "The Beguiled," her remake of the 1971 Don Seigel directed film starring Clint Eastwood.

Now, of course, we do find ourselves during a period in cinema where originality has taken a severe backseat to all manner of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings, sequels, prequels and so on. But, that is not to say that all of those sub genres possess no value just in an of themselves. In fact, there are some stories more than worthy of re-telling and with "The Beguiled," based upon an original novel written by a man and a film directed by a man, Coppola's uniquely feminine (and I am certain some would say "feminist") perspective forces the material to be seen and experienced through a profoundly different lens, therefore making for an overall different experience whatsoever.

And in the case of Coppola's "The Beguiled," she has created a darkly artful, quietly disturbing, almost queasily intense chamber thriller which places the dynamics of the sexes front and center while also continuing to explore her consistent themes of female isolation and imprisonment, either self-imposed or otherwise. For those of you out there who are craving a movie that is decidedly more adult in tone, tenor and presentation, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" will indeed serve as a grim antidote to the summertime superhero movie blues.

For those of you, who like myself, are unfamiliar with the original material, I will keep the plot description brief. Set in 1864 Virginia, three years into the Civil War, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" stars Nicole Kidman as Miss Martha Farnsworth, headmistress of an increasingly vacant and isolated girls school, as all but five students and one teacher, Miss Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), have remained.

One morning as one of the students named Amy (Oona Laurence) is out in the nearby woods picking mushrooms, she stumbles across the wounded body of John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a corporal in the Union army, whose leg was shot and he has since deserted the battlefield. Out of kindness, Amy brings John to the girls school to the surprise, confusion and anxiousness of her classmates and teachers. John soon falls into unconsciousness and Miss Martha reluctantly houses him inside one of the school's rooms and tends to his wounds while all of the other women in the household gather outside of the door in extreme curiosity.

As John regains consciousness and slowly begins his healing process, the girls all take turns visiting him, showering him with attention, curious stares and affectionate wonderment, all of which John reciprocates individually and based upon each woman's particular interests, most notably the more amorous emotions and sexual tensions stirred within both Miss Farnsworth and Miss Morrow.

Conflicts begin to rise as John's health improves to the point where he volunteers to work in the school's garden, as he fears that he will have to return to the war, fears that are intensified by Miss Farnsworth's prompts for him to leave the premises.

And then, one night, after the girls, the women and John share a sumptuous meal together by candlelight, the gradually percolating tensions boil over...

As I have not seen the original film or have even read the original novel from which this material is based, I am unable to make any sort of comparative judgement for you. But that being said, Sofia Coppola's "The Beguiled" is an elegant pot boiler, one whose quietness and subtlety can often be disarming to the point of being somewhat lulling--as is a Coppola trademark. But rest assured, the power and overall disturbing nature of the film is not undone by the film's minimalism. In fact, the sparseness more than works to the film's advantages and definitely showcases Coppola's strengths as a filmmaker who has established and demonstrated her fully developed idiosyncratic voice from her very first film.

I do realize that for some viewers, perhaps even some of you reading this post, may feel that Sofia Coppola's style is artificial at best with a measured, deliberate pacing that can be numbing at worst. I get it. I understand. Yet, for me, that specific quality has never been a bother to me as her films have contained a certain dreamy haze that lends itself to her consistent themes of alienation, isolation and feeling completely remote from one's location or environment as a whole. With "The Beguiled," I felt that Coppola's understatedness and overall restraint--plus Cinematographer Phillipe Le Sourd's cloudy, naturalistic palate, reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's "Barry Lyndon" (1975)--were crucial to its drama, making the larger moments truly stand out without any sense of hyperbole.

Additionally, I do realize that there has been some rumbling controversy over Coppola's interpretation of this Civil War set material and the fact that there are no Black actors or characters present within the film, therefore making "The Beguiled" viewed as the latest attempt at Hollywood "whitewashing."  For me, while I do understand the criticism, I harbored no such emotions as I viewed the film as I do feel that the inclusion of racially based subject matter would have altered the story tremendously, opening the experience up to existing as a completely different kind of movie altogether. Essentially, in order to insert such material properly as well as artfully, "The Beguiled" would need to be fashioned into being more of an epic. In Sofia Coppola's directorial hands, her film is a chamber piece and intimacy is the key.

"The Beguiled" fits perfectly within the remainder of films in Sofia Coppola's oeuvre as we are again given a collective of characters who are essentially living life as if under a pristine casing of glass. From the over-bearing restrictive parents in Middle class White suburbia (1999's "The Virgin Suicides"), the fishbowl world of fame, celebrity and (it could be argued) White privilege (2003's "Lost In Translation," 2006's "Marie Antoinette," 2010's "Somewhere," 2013's "The Bling Ring"), wealth and power (essentially all of her films), Sofia Coppola's characters are sometimes victims, architects or even some semblance of both in regards to their collective states of isolation, misery and downfalls.

For me, "The Beguiled" fits best with "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," as Coppola places her focus squarely upon women often trapped in worlds not of their making but are attempting to exert some sense of control regardless. For this film, I loved how that even though the film is set three years into the Civil War, we never see any of the battle whatsoever. We solely hear the gunfire and see the rising smoke from battlefields far, far off in the distance. Aside from John McBurney, we greet a few Confederate solders who pass by the schoolhouse where McBurney is hidden in secretive convalescence and that is really all we gather of anyone from the outside world. Coppola gives us a large school, surrounded by a gate and removed from absolutely everything pertaining to the war and inhabited by seven girls and women, who are mostly viewed from the indoors gazing out of the windows at the larger world they are not even connected with.  

The surprise arrival of John McBurney, a Union soldier no less, perfectly sets up the initial sense of conflict and distrust between the man and the females, plus within the females themselves. But when faced with their Christian values--a nice touch--the woman find themselves tested by the constructs and expectations of their own existence as Southern girls and women. Once the "other" has breached the threshold of their environment, the differing, conflicting emotions of simple curiosity and fascination soon flow into areas of sexual tension and dominance of one gender over the other.

And yet she gives men equal time to explore societal constructs and expectations. I found it fascinating how Coppola and Colin Farrell framed the McBurney character as one whose war wounds have clearly altered his feelings about his participation within the war, therefore making his character conflicted with his own feelings about his manhood. As tensions escalate and explode in the later sections of the film, Coppola slyly addresses male psychological fears of castration into the mix, therefore allowing McBurney to question his manhood regarding sexual power. But it is in those earlier sequences in the film, as the women of the school house visit McBurney one by one, how effectively he plays into their affection and attention through zeroing in on a certain attribute, fully specific to each female, therefore making the women feel as if they are the sole female figure in the house to have the entirety of his gaze and desires.

This is where "The Beguiled" finds its strengths, within Coppola's measured tone and meticulously perceptive examinations into male and female vanity, and as the film continues, the levels to which each gender will ensure their own sense of self-preservation.  

The entire cast of "The Beguiled" is first rate. Nicole Kidman, already raising her own bar through her searing work on HBO's "Big Little Lies," has turned in one of her most accomplished performances as the severely pragmatic Miss Martha Farnsworth. Colin Farrell also provides another high mark in his career, with a performance that is by turns sly, charismatic, polite, sincere, fearful, monstrous and even comical as the Union soldier who soon discovers that life inside of the female inhabited schoolhouse is more perilous than the Civil War battlefield. Kirsten Dunst, working with Coppola for the third time after "The Virgin Suicides" and "Marie Antoinette," again serves us an engaged, honest and empathetic gaze into the inner world of another of Coppola's "butterflies under glass."  

Dear readers, the movies are reaching a most critical period. Now I am not about to admonish any of you for desiring to see all manner of superheroes, sequels, and mainstream genre films, certainly not because I see the same films too. But as I have been expressing for the entirety of this blogsite, what troubles me is the increased focus upon those films at the expense of any other films being made, especially ones from filmmakers who clearly have a personalized viewpoint that they wish to create and share. Sofia Coppola is such a filmmaker, and especially within an industry where there are so shamelessly few prominent female filmmakers with Coppola's influence, clout and ability to get her projects made and released, she is someone I feel that we should treasure unquestionably.

Sofia Coppola's"The Beguiled" is an adult artistic statement from a filmmaker who has always been fortunate and skilled enough to create, explore and critique her cinematic worldview. We need filmmakers like her and what a shame it would be to have a voice like hers snuffed out in favor of the vacuously uninspired, the mindlessly gargantuan, and the blatantly anonymous.

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