The Tender Trap
By Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Sofia Coppola, U.S., Focus Features
There is an acquisitive aspect to sexual desire, a fact testified to by the legendary harems of long-ago-fallen empires and a significant quantity of contemporary pornography. The presence of prideful collector psychology in games of love and lust is hardly uniquely attributable to men, though historical power dynamics have given us more prominent instances of the proverbial rooster in the hen house, a saying which neatly summarizes the set-up of Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, in which the stuff of macho fantasy—an entire house of women and girls at one’s beck and call—takes a turn towards a castrating nightmare.
The stud male is here first encountered in the wild: while gathering mushrooms in the Spanish Moss–garlanded woods of what an on-screen title identifies as “1864 Virginia,” preadolescent Amy (Oona Laurence) stumbles across a battle-battered Yankee bleeding to death on the forest floor, one John McBurney (Colin Farrell), late of Dublin. Amy helps McBurney to the nearest shelter, Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies, the boarding school where she and a few other girls stay, still conjugating their French verbs and sewing their samplers and generally maintaining a semblance of graceful and decorous living while cannonades not so far off in the distance occasionally interrupt the idyllic chittering of the birds in the trees. The arrival of McBurney causes controversy among the few who remain at the Seminary—Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), a bashful bluestocking, takes pity; Jane (Angourie Rice), a Confederate patriot, is all for turning the prisoner over to Andersonville and almost certain gangrenous death; and Alicia (Elle Fanning) speaks much the same line, while a naughty twinkle in her eye tells a different story. The deciding vote goes to Miss Farnsworth herself, played by Nicole Kidman as a straight-backed model of poise and graciousness whose façade only begins to falter when, having decided to invite the enemy into the bosom of her home, she nearly has a hot-and-bothered fainting spell while giving the unconscious soldier a sponge bath. These ladies have been a long time without male companionship, a fact that McBurney, as soon as he is up and about, sets about turning to turn to his advantage, seducing the household en masse with a line of blarney, never for a moment imagining that there may be consequences for trifling with these dainty women.
The Beguiled first came into existence as A Painted Devil, a 1966 novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, which was subsequently adapted into a 1971 film masterpiece directed by Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, and Elizabeth Hartman as McBurney, Miss Farnsworth, and Edwina, respectively. I have not read Cullinan’s novel, though can attest that in most essential narrative points the plotting of Coppola’s film hews close to that of the Siegel picture, with a few noteworthy exceptions—Coppola makes no use of flashbacks, as Siegel does, to reveal both the imposture of McBurney’s act as an unwilling participant in the carnage of the war and the truth of Miss Farnsworth’s unnaturally close relationship with her dear, departed brother. A scene where Confederate troops unexpectedly drop into the Seminary in the Siegel film is pregnant with the potential for sexual violence, but this is eschewed entirely in Coppola’s film, which for the most part elides suspense scenes and other genre elements to focus on daily ritual at Miss Farnsworth’s school, like the little musical recital that the unexpected knock on the door so rudely interrupts.
In anticipation of the release of Coppola’s film, the difference between this Beguiled and its predecessors most discussed by the controversy-hungry commentariat was the excising of the character of the Seminary’s female domestic slave, played in the Siegel film by Mae Mercer, at whom Eastwood directs the immortal come-on: “I’ve been having a run of bad luck lately; I understand the way to fix this is to have a black woman.” (For her rejoinder, the uninitiated are directed to the film.) When criticized for whitewashing the truth of the Confederacy, Coppola responded to the effect that confronting the legacy of slavery was outside of her bandwidth. In this she’s well within her rights as an artist, and of course there is something to be said for recognizing one’s limitations, though it is worth thinking about what, exactly, did bring her to this subject.
Coppola has given her own reasons, among them the urging of production designer and longtime collaborator Anne Ross to tackle the period—it was to be a relief from the “tacky” setting of her The Bling Ring (2013) per the director, never the most reflexive interviewee—and the opportunities provided in reworking the original material through a female perspective. The implications of this are significantly greater than decorating the story with scenes of puppy love whisperings in the school’s shared beds and privileged moments of painful beautification—the tightening of corsets and the pinching of cheeks to provide flush. The Siegel film is an ensemble piece, but Eastwood is very much at its center, as is the destructive force of his libido—also the subtext of his own Play Misty for Me, released the same year. Whether it’s a matter of screen time or the fact that there’s no contemporary actor possessed of Eastwood’s iconic stature and, circa 1971, tractor-beam mojo, Farrell’s McBurney comes across rather more faintly—in fact all the characters do, a product of the overall sense of diffusion that lays over Coppola’s film, like the ever-present layer of mist on the Seminary grounds. Though they differ little in dramatic incident, Siegel’s movie is defined by moments of explosive force and violations of decorum, while Coppola’s is defined by restraint, its keeping up of appearances—hot, impulsive masculine anger as opposed to cool, calculated feminine rage. What is a wrenching, gasp-inducing moment in the former, McBurney rashly dashing a pet turtle against a wall, is dampened in Coppola’s handling, an insult to be catalogued and redressed only when the time is right.
I suspect another element that attracted Coppola to The Beguiled was its peculiar liminal quality, the way in which it violates and disturbs categories of taste. The 1971 version is a slippery object, an art film made by a genre specialist, while the 2017 film feels like the work of an art house director approaching a genre piece—though in assigning these labels, it is worth investigating what they mean. The abridged version goes something like this: the genre film is masculine, terse, working-to-middle-class, workaday, anonymous; the art film is effeminate, decorative, patrician, and signed with a florid signature. Like most broad-brush cultural assumptions, this one doesn’t hold up under much scrutiny—Siegel, for instance, was a Cambridge graduate—but because it provides a convenient shorthand for overworked cultural journalists, it still heavily colors the discourse, as illustrated in various dismissive references to the Siegel film as “seventies pulp” or worse in reviews of Coppola’s movie. It is also, like most broad-brush cultural assumptions, at least partially instructive. Siegel, who cut his teeth in the montage department of Warner Brothers, was the classic example of the foot soldier craftsman who worked his way up the ranks, an artisan belatedly celebrated as an artist though the hard-bitten austerity of his style never fundamentally changed—his Escape from Alcatraz (1979), also starring Eastwood, is probably the most Bressonian film to ever receive a wide release in the United States. Coppola is figuratively and literally a child of the auteur elevation that Siegel enjoyed in later life, a brand name from birth, a fact mentioned neither to celebrate nor excoriate, and describing the textures particular to the inside of the cocoon of privilege has been among the abiding themes of her work. (Though the poster child for posh cineastes, her background is that of a pauper compared to that of, say, Robert Aldrich or Count Luchino Visconti.)
On the conceptual level, then, the collision of Coppola and The Beguiled is a fascinating prospect, especially as it comes on the heels of what is to my mind the only wholly satisfying film of her career, The Bling Ring, a movie pulled taut by its constant countervailing forces of attraction and repulsion, entirely absent of curatorial postures and flimsy sentiment. Alas, here the Platonic purity of the idea must give way to the fact of the movie, in this case a pretty woebegone thing. Farrell’s rogue with a brogue act is his least compelling performance in recent memory, and while watching him I was reminded of his conquering valet in Liv Ullmann’s superlative 2014 film adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, another confrontation between feminine and masculine authorial personalities, though this one a fierce and dead game cage match. Kidman for Page is a roughly equal exchange, while replacing the ineffable, tremulous presence of Hartman with that of Coppola’s longtime collaborator Dunst, who has no clear handle on her character or even her accent, is a pretty rotten hand-off.
It may be said that playing such games of niggling comparison and dwelling on individual performances misses the point of what Coppola is doing, that her principal preoccupation is in conjuring up an overall feel, in service of which classicist preoccupations such as character and narrative may be softened if not quite entirely dissolved into languorous atmosphere: all of those insert shots and attention to the change of light on the Seminary grounds, the lambent splashes on the manor’s entablature in the morning and the filtered rays of late afternoon sunshine through the canopy of ancient trees and the particular robin’s egg blue of the interior walls as seen at the hour of dusk. Those who are more ardently inclined toward Coppola’s body of work than myself will sometimes offer the pure sensorial pleasure of her films as their first line of defense, protesting that those preoccupied with plumbing the depths of her films fall prey to overlooking the luxuriant surfaces, a style that in itself is substance. On this level, too, there’s little to enthuse over in The Beguiled, which finds the director’s gifts as a mesmerist faltering. Set in a rarefied, cultivated, preindustrial milieu, the film is most closely related to Coppola’s Marie Antoinette (2006), its portrait of a waning aristocracy perpetuating the greatly exaggerated myth of antebellum Southern culture. The approach here is decidedly more minimalist—the non-diegetic music is concentrated in its latter half, ambient noodlings by the band Phoenix, while DP Philippe Le Sourd is working in subtle, etiolated half-tones, a contrast to the rich, rococo rot of Bruce Surtees’s work for Siegel. Rather than watercolorist delicacy, the effect is one of anemia—perhaps, as an American, Coppola is more sensitive to the implications of appearing to relish the fading splendor of King Cotton’s empire than she was to delighting in that of the Bourbons.
Intimate and understated, Coppola’s film stands in stark contrast to the average run of what one can find in the contemporary multiplex—and she is one of a handful of American filmmakers under 50 who is able to marshal big-name stars and mid-sized budgets around movies that display a modicum of respect for the medium and an ambitious interest in its potentialities. Given the general state of popular movies, this may be reason enough to rally around The Beguiled, but the film suggests more a series of abnegations than an abiding purpose. It isn’t a suspense movie, it isn’t a dissection of race relations in the Civil War South, it isn’t a bask in the dying light of the agrarian gentry, it isn’t even particularly sexed-up and bodice-ripping lascivious—even when ogling McBurney, who’s far more lustily considered in the ’71 film. “Taste,” the poet Paul Valery said, “is made of a thousand distastes”—fair enough, and by any measure Coppola’s The Beguiled is a film of impeccable taste, even when the camera is caught lingering on grievous wounds. More at home in Calabasas than Old Dominion, Coppola has given us some grisly field surgeries here, but what’s lacking is the sense of the awful present in The Bling Ring, with its phantom limb twitch of spiritual amputation.