Sofia Coppola won Best Director at the Cannes film festival for The Beguiled, her adaptation of the novel of the same name. While I’m not sure who she was up against to win these honors, it was just minutes into the film when I became confident that the award was very well-deserved. The Beguiled is a product of a technically proficient and deeply thoughtful filmmaker, and it should be applauded simply for being so audacious. Unfortunately, the content of the film didn’t really work for me. As a fan of the previous adaptation from 1971, I was expecting something more from the update. I wanted for there to be elements that were perhaps lacking in the previous iteration — something that would make a case for a second interpretation. Unfortunately, what was intended to be an exercise in narrative streamlining feels instead like one of those TV versions that are cut for time.
What I mean to say is that having seen the 1971 film just a few days prior to this one, I may have ruined it for myself.
Three years into the Civil War, Union soldier Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) finds himself injured and in the reluctant care of the denizens of a southern school for girls. The headmistress, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), initially wants to turn him over to passing Confederate patrols, but her curiosity as well as the virtuous guidance of her eldest student, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) leads to the decision to hold McBurney at the school so that he doesn’t die in a Confederate prison. Seeing as how he’s the first man that any of these women have interacted with in ages, his presence causes a stir amongst them. Same goes the other way around. McBurney presumably hasn’t known the touch of a woman in a long time, and it brings forth the animal within to be surrounded by such a lovely group of ladies. As he convalesces, a psychological game begins in which all parties seek both freedom and pleasure, but at such a time, these concepts are mutually exclusive.
Right off the bat there’s an obvious narrative failing. In the original film, almost every character’s inner monologue is provided through voice over. Before Adaptation came along and made a rule out of something that didn’t need to be, voiceover was something we weren’t afraid of. Naturally, it should be used in a way that isn’t gaudy or lazy, and in the 1971 film it works beautifully. While it did help that the film was right on the border of being a scummy exploitation film (it was made by Don Siegel, the director of Dirty Harry), the function of the voiceovers was clear. By eliminating all dramatic irony it gives clarity to the narrative thrust. Since we can understand the motivations of each character, we can anticipate how they will react to plot developments, and find tension in moments where they lie to one another.
Conversely, Coppola’s film does not give us much of a window into the what drives the characters’ actions. We have to take all dialogue at face value. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but only if the behaviors of each character can be explained. Had I watched this film without being informed by the previous version, I might have been able to get a better read on my criticism, but as I experienced it, it felt like the characters we’re reenacting he 1971 film from memory. The big moments all happen, but the important in-between stuff is lost.
That said, the design of The Beguiled is impeccable. As this takes place in the south at about the time when loss was imminent for the Confederacy, Miss Martha’s school has fallen into disrepair. The house is grown over with weeds and vines, and the inside feels musty. You can almost taste the rot in the air, and it thoroughly informs the unspoken notion that, at least for the people inside, there is no “normal” to go back to. When Edwina speaks of one day getting to go home, it’s with a tragic, knowing wistfulness.
I haven’t read deep into it, but I did see that there was some back-and-forth about the decision not to feature slaves in the film. Ultimately, I think leaving out a depiction of slavery is the right choice for the story. Firstly, when you put slavery in a movie, the movie becomes about slavery. It’s too atrocious of a thing not to grapple with if you’re going to depict it. Since The Beguiled isn’t about slavery, it could be argued that it was best to leave it out. Secondly, it’s a thematically smart move. It is mentioned early on the all of the slaves left. They just up and left. Prisoners were able to just walk away. This illuminates how desperate the situation is for the school’s inhabitants. Without unpaid laborers they can’t even keep the house clean — and are thankful for having fewer mouths to feed.
If you’re not going to properly motivate the characters, the least you can do is use details like the absence of slaves (coupled with the aforementioned set design) to give the setting the life it needs to hold a story.
And while we’re talking about social issues…
My fear is that the reaction to The Beguiled will follow the same tired and immature boys vs girls narrative that we’ve affixed to any piece of media unfortunate enough to feature both men and women. Many men will see this and think that Colin Farrell was taken advantage of, and merely used the tools available to him to survive (all the while enjoying himself a bit), while many women will likely see him as a villain, with Edwina and the gang as victims reclaiming their strength in a world where they are all but forgotten. The 1971 film, as hammy as it was, made it very clear that the extent to which gender played a role in the proceedings was only in the notion that repression leads to greed, and greed leads to rot. Siegel’s film tells a tale of folks blindsided by the effects of their own self-interest — their own deceptions — and how posturing to avoid direct communication is a doomed trail to walk.
But my fears are only justified (if at all) in the reception to Coppola’s film, not in its content. Overall, The Beguiled is a ride worth taking. Both Nicole Kidman and Kirsten Dunst are phenomenal, and Colin Farrell makes McBurney just the right level of cool and slimy. The way these three toss around innuendo (“your roses could use some pruning”) is a filthy delight. My request to you is this, dear reader: go see Coppola’s The Beguiled first, and then check out the Siegel version. See if that makes this movie work better for you than it did for me.
The Beguiled opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.