Ever since her feature debut, The Virgin Suicides (1999), a dreamy, diaphanous tale about the mysteries of girlhood, Sofia Coppola has ranked among the finest distillers of mood (especially languor) and milieu. Those qualities abound in The Beguiled, her sixth film, an adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s Civil War–set novel of the same name (published in 1966), which was first transferred to the screen by Don Siegel in 1971. Coppola’s version of Cullinan’s Southern Gothic (which I haven’t read) differs wildly from Siegel’s in tone: Where his film is florid, frenzied and swampy, hers is more restrained, composed, clement. This is not always a compliment.
Its action confined primarily to a Greek-revival mansion that houses a girls school in the deep South — where repressed desire hangs heavy in the air — The Beguiled opens with one of the few scenes to take place outdoors. (Coppola’s film was shot at Louisiana’s Madewood Plantation House, where Beyoncé set part of Lemonade’s “Sorry.”) On a solo expedition, pigtailed pee-wee naturalist Amy (Oona Laurence), one of the institution’s charges, encounters the unexpected while picking mushrooms: a wounded Union soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), bleeding heavily under an oak tree that drips with Spanish moss. She aids the enemy combatant by leading him, their arms around each other, back to her academy, presided over by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), a hard-praying Christian who reluctantly agrees to take in the blue-belly.
Siegel’s film, which starred Clint Eastwood at the height of his vulpine allure, just before his Dirty Harry incarnation, punctuated this rescue mission by having the grime-caked soldier give his young savior, no older than 12, a kiss on the mouth; the scene in Coppola’s movie is smooch-free. That kiss — so predatory, so wrong — immediately established McBurney’s sexual menace, a threat that Coppola chooses to reveal more gradually, more coolly. The drop in temperature largely results from the different affects of the performers playing the Union man. Eastwood’s low, slow delivery is that of a seducer wholly confident in his ability to ensnare. Farrell, speaking in his native Hibernian brogue — his McBurney is an Irish mercenary — plays the character with more Old World courtliness and affability.
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But the soldier is still a peerless flirt and manipulator. After stitching up McBurney’s suppurating wound, Miss Martha installs him in the music room, where he soon becomes the object of fascination for all seven of the school’s residents. The headmistress continues to minister to her newest resident, her wet sponge shown in close-up as she inches it closer to his groin. The recuperating soldier’s other frequent visitors include the dispirited instructor Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, in her third film with Coppola), first seen glumly going over the conjugation of être with three of her students, and Alicia (Elle Fanning, reteaming with the director for the first time since 2010’s Somewhere), the eldest of the pupils and the most carnally curious and assured. Each bedside chat reveals the immobile man making promises that can only be broken and instigating rivalries among his helpmates — his cooing and cajoling leading to a gruesome payback.
Here, too, Coppola favors temperance, or at least a more controlled emotional turmoil, a sharp contrast to Siegel’s baroque, bizarre ambience and backstory. The Marthas in each version are fragile martinets. But in the ’71 film, the school leader — played by Geraldine Page, who, as a veteran of Tennessee Williams productions, inhabited the part of the ultimately vengeful she-savage more nimbly than Kidman does — is tantalized by memories of the dead brother who was also her lover. Freaky flashbacks illustrate these incestuous reminiscences in Siegel’s film, rife with other outlandish formal elements — such as the superimposition of a swirling chandelier when McBurney is deep in a lip lock with one of his de facto harem.
The Beguiled ’71 gluts; Coppola’s film tamps down and reduces. Coppola and her cinematographer, Philippe Le Sourd, forgo ornate, unhinged visuals for simpler beauty: shafts of sunlight pouring through windows or through tree branches, candles illuminating a celebratory feast. Some of this stripping away includes excising a character: Hallie, the slave at the Farnsworth house so shrewdly portrayed by Mae Mercer in Siegel’s movie, appears nowhere in Coppola’s. “I didn’t want to have a slave character in The Beguiled because that subject is a very important one, and I didn’t want to brush over it lightly,” Coppola says in the press notes. “This movie is about this one group of women left behind during the war.” Intended as some kind of brave admission, the comment instead scans as evasion — as an unwillingness to grapple with vile truths, a reluctance to stray from decorousness.
For some, the sexual hysteria in Siegel’s movie is ugly, an unrepentant expression of woman-terror. But I’ve always been fascinated by the sheer excess of ’71’s Beguiled, in the ways that its surfeit of lust and scheming somehow lays bare — and, in a perverse way, honors — the fury of the Farnsworth females. Coppola’s Beguiled, like nearly every film she’s made, teems with rich, period-exact surfaces. McBurney may suffer grievous bodily harm in The Beguiled, but Coppola’s movie never breaks the skin.