' ' Cinema Romantico: The Beguiled

Monday, July 10, 2017

The Beguiled

If Don Siegel’s 1971 film “The Beguiled”, the rare Clint Eastwood foray into erotica, where he lusted after an entire boarding school of girls and they lusted after him was seen from the perspective of its masculine star, then Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” remake turns Siegel’s film inside out, rooting its point of view to the women. It also scrubs away much of the original’s vulgarity and violence for a prim, proper, almost fairytale aesthetic underlining the seminary setting where Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tutors the young girls in her charge in the ways of being “good Christian women”, which is how the repressive era preferred their women be seen and is consequently the same lens through which Coppola shows us these seven girls. And while Coppola does eventually smear that lens, she never devolves into overheated hysteria like the 1971 film, likely because, as you can almost hear a seemly southern gentleman saying, such hysteria is unbecoming of a lady.

The story turns on eleven year old Amy (Oona Laurence) finding an injured Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), and helping him back to her boarding school so his wounds can be mended. When he asks after the slaves, Amy explains they all left, a fairly conspicuous evasion of the era’s most incendiary sin. Indeed, violence and vulgarity is not all that Coppola scrubs from this version. Though not seeing these women engaged in the no doubt hard work – cleaning, cooking, tilling – that went with maintaining such an opulent residence comes across like a conscious stylistic choice to further underline the overriding importance of appearances, it also evokes the absence of those on which these white Confederate women would have relied. And while the war itself is present, with low rumbles of cannon fire on the soundtrack and smoke on the horizon, it remains distinctly, deliberately abstract as “The Beguiled” purposely jettisons politics of the War Between the States to exclusively scrutinize the War Between the Sexes. In recounting that war, Coppola is frequently successful.

McBurney, frankly, often comes across less like a soldier than a male odalisque, framed to ogle as he is propped up in bed where his leg mends. When he initially arrives, passed out cold, Miss Martha washes the dirt off his body, pausing to wring out her scrub like she might pass out, a moment which Kidman plays at a more comical pitch than sensual, like she, beacon of piety, has run up against an immovable erotic object. He, quite aware of the spell he casts, indulges in it, though with far less of the naked aggression in Siegel’s version, with Farrell cutting a courtly figure as he goes about whispering sweet nothings in each one’s individual company, making promises he never intends to keep, particularly with Edwina, who projects her desire to escape these stuffy surroundings onto this interloper. This, however, is an underwritten subplot that strangely gets the shrift in the film’s denouement, though Dunst still provides her character a credible melancholy ache and a closeted carnal desire.

His manipulations eventually give way, and when they do so does his fragile physical state which suddenly turns perilous, transforming him from manipulator into monster, though, like so many monsters, he ultimately proves more make believe. When Marie (Addison Riecke) makes the fateful suggestion for how they might be rid of their guest it is astonishing to see how it easy it comes to her, like it was hovering in the air all the while just waiting for someone to grasp it, and when Miss Martha gives it her blessing, Kidman delicately but demonically allows her character to revel in this sudden acquisition of power. And though McBurney’s comeuppance takes place in a traditionally suspenseful context, Coppola, as she does elsewhere, deliberately strips away that suspense, the capper hinging on McBurney’s own oblivious doltishness with Miss Martha’s wicked smile as the laugh track, the latter revealing the movie’s inclination to laugh at McBurney rather than be frightened by him. To that point, when McBurney gets hold of a gun and waves it around, it is born as much from desperate impotence as menace, evinced in how quickly he discards that gun when Edwina lets herself into his room and more or less throws herself at him.

Just as Coppola eliminates so much suspense, she also does away with the majority of the material’s inherent grisliness, most acutely emblemized in a shot when Miss Martha’s nightgown is streaked with blood, which elicits the air of an oil painting hanging in some musty museum where the tastefulness of the gore yearns to illustrate how the macabre and the femine are not meant to mix. The concluding shot, with the seven women gathered on the front porch, resembles a painting too, as if they are sitting for a portrait, though the portrait begins in a wide angle with the women in the distant background and McBurney in the foreground. Then the camera closes in on the women, slowly removing McBurney from the frame, and you can almost hear a seemly southern gentleman saying to himself as he passes by, “My, my, what good Christian women.”

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