Sofia Coppola's 'The Beguiled': Elegance Bordering on Fetishism

In 'The Beguiled,' starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst, the elegant exterior defeats the story

Elle Fanning, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Angourie Rice, Oona Laurence, Emma Howard and Addison Riecke in a scene from 'The Beguiled.'
Ben Rothstein/AP

While preparing to write this review of “The Beguiled,” the new film for which Sofia Coppola won the Director’s Prize at the last Cannes Film Festival, I went back to Don Siegel’s adaptation of the same novel on which Coppola’s movie is based, Thomas Cullinan’s “The Painted Devil.” Revisiting Siegel’s movie – which failed at the box office when it was released in 1971, despite Clint Eastwood’s star performance – made me even more aware than I had been before of how thin Coppola’s adaptation of the novel really is.

Siegel (“Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” “Dirty Harry”) turned Cullinan’s book into a horror fairy tale in the form of a chilling Gothic melodrama. The movie is directed with remarkable skill, and its horror builds up in a precisely timed way. Coppola’s “The Beguiled,” by contrast, savors its own elegant appearance too much, to the point of seeming openly fetishistic. The characters are not as carefully shaped as they were in Siegel’s version of the story, and the structure is uneven and badly paced.

The fact that Coppola, a woman, is re-adapting a novel by a male author that was previously adapted by a male director might have been expected to alter the point of view of “The Beguiled,” which explores how the wounded presence of a man inside an an all-female society unsettles its fragile balance of power. Indeed, some American reviews of “The Beguiled” noted such a change immediately; I, however, cannot detect any gendered difference between the two films’ perspectives. True, Coppola did remove some of the crueler, more perverse elements of Siegel’s version, which caused his “The Beguiled” to border on the misogynous; but the plots of the two movies are structured very similarly, and some of Coppola’s scenes recreate Siegel’s with great precision – without, however, possessing the visual, dramatic and emotional power of the earlier movie.

Set during the American Civil War, “The Beguiled” tells the story of Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Yankee soldier discovered by a girl named Amy (Oona Laurence) in the woods near the prestigious girls’ academy she attends. She takes the soldier to the school, where only six women remain: the headmistress, Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman); her assistant, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who teaches French to the four students left at the school, the oldest of them being the pubescent Alicia (Elle Fanning). Day-to-day life at the school continues as though there is no war outside, though the sounds of fighting can be heard from a distance, and both Yankee and Confederate soldiers sometimes pass outside the gates. Martha and Edwina insist that the students continue to comport themselves as decorous Southern belles, and the candlelit dinners they all share aim to preserve the gracious way of life the South enjoyed before the war, as though there were no war at all.

Martha decides not to turn the wounded soldier over to the Confederate Army until he recovers. It seems to her the proper, Christian thing to do; however, the presence of a man inside this female environment disrupts the delicate balance between the six women. McBurney is quite the manipulator, and in order to keep himself from being turned over to the Southern troops, he plays on the feelings and repressed desires of Martha, Edwina and Alicia, who suddenly find their tranquil life shot through with sexual tension. Coppola’s movie progresses in a leisurely way for a story of wartime, until McBurney’s scheming clashes with the longings of the three women. However, as both director and writer, Coppola fails to unfold this process as gradually as Siegel did, so that her movie hints at the end from the beginning, making the result feel cumbersome.

Coppola made some odd decisions in her screenplay. Unlike Siegel, she does not open the film with a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and a montage of Civil War photographs, shown to the sound of a song calling on young men not to become soldiers; she also leaves out the short flashback scenes in which we see McBurney during his time in the killing fields. These are legitimate choices, which support Coppola’s effort to portray the heroines as largely oblivious to the war. Less plausible and more damaging to the movie’s complexity is her decision to cut out the character of Hallie, the school’s black slave, whom Martha and Edwina treat with respect but also as a slave, and whom McBurney manipulates as well by pointing out everything they have in common – a comparison that Hallie, in Siegel’s movie, rejects with proud disdain.

With the exception of “Lost in Translation,” in which Coppola ably wove together the story and the visual design, in her other movies – “Marie Antoinette,” “The Bling Ring” – the exterior overwhelmed the narrative. The story of “The Beguiled” is a powerful one, but it, too, dissolves into Coppola’s attempt to make an “art movie” – an ironic attempt, perhaps, but one that is unsatisfactorily executed (the fact that the female characters are all constantly dressed in white doesn’t help the irony). Nicole Kidman gives a capable performance as the headmistress trying to maintain normalcy at the school, but Coppola makes her above all an elegant figure, and Kidman lacks the force of the great Geraldine Page, who played the same part to perfection in Siegel’s movie. The passion that Martha feels stirring inside her while she bathes McBurney, including his most intimate parts – a task that Siegel’s Martha left to Hallie – does not generate the same thrill of menacing passion in Coppola’s version. 

Another problem is Colin Farrell’s presence, which cannot measure up to Eastwood’s in the previous movie. Casting Eastwood as McBurney emphasized his preoccupation with his own dangerous, seductive essence as a man and a star, also evident that same year in his first movie as director, “Play Misty for Me.” Farrell, by contrast, brings nothing to the role beyond his already proven acting talent. His McBurney may be manipulative, but he is also colorless and limited, and the dramatic peaks of Farrell’s performance seem artificial and theatrical.

Coppola’s decision to direct a new adaptation of Cullinan’s novel and a remake of Siegel’s movie is interesting; but why did she choose this project, if she has such a vague interpretation of both the book and the previous film? I don’t have an answer to this question, except to say that Coppola, daughter of one of the premier American filmmakers of our day, may simply be overrated, a conclusion that “The Beguiled” supports. Coppola, it seems, was concerned about having her movie described as “trashy,” as happened to Siegel’s film, and she aims for a more subtle result. As a consequence of this fear, however, her version of “The Beguiled” is lackluster and even bland. No one can attack her adaptation in the way some denounced Siegel’s film, a work so unusual that critics at the time did not know what to make of it; but then, no one ever called the 1971 “The Beguiled” lackluster and bland.