I thought about the human aspect of these women and what their lives were like.
There are very few modern remakes that cause you to think about the reasons behind why they are being retold. Typically it’s a cash-grab. But that’s not the case with writer-director Sofia Coppola’s remake of THE BEGUILED.
The tension-laden, thoroughly provocative drama tells of the effect wounded Union soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell) has on the women of a girl’s school in Virginia run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Needless to say, their all-female society is shaken at his arrival, with each of their girls reacting to his presence in varying ways. What ensues is haunting and is guaranteed to leave you shook.
Thomas Cullinan’s novel, of which Coppola based her adaptation on, was written in 1966 and set in Civil War era 1864 – both being times before the term “feminism” was coined. Given that the source material has a noticeable feminist undercurrent, Coppola didn’t purposely attempt to keep the modern specter of it out of her adaptation. At the film’s recent Los Angeles press conference, Coppola explained,
That’s a good question. I just imagined what it was like for the women at that time. How they were raised to be these lovely ladies and the whole idea of etiquette and charm. Catering to men was really how they were raised and then all of a sudden, they were on their own and had to learn how to survive. I just imagined these characters had to learn to find their strength – especially Miss Martha – to protect these women. I thought about the human aspect of these women and what their lives were like.
For Dunst’s character Edwina, a teacher at Miss Martha’s girls school, we are meeting her at a time of stifled emotional upheaval. She’s ready to change her landscape in more ways than one, and when she’s introduced to an ailing Corporal McBurney, he seizes on her vulnerability. Dunst stated,
I felt like the whole house was suffocating. So by the time we bring this enemy in, there’s so much opposition inside of her. She’s trying to be a good Christian and good example for the girls – and yet there’s this enemy. On top of it, she’s got so much repression and she’s under Miss Martha’s thumb. Edwina’s just ready to explode.
Fanning, who plays minxy schoolgirl Alicia, elucidated,
All the manners and etiquette that we’ve learned in the beginning, it all goes out the window.
They’re dealing with desire in a way they weren’t told about. And they’re human.
After the Cannes-winning auteur made BLING RING, she really was just looking for something pretty to catch her eye.
I was so sick of pop culture – it wasn’t aesthetic. I wanted to do something beautiful.
A friend of hers suggested director Don Siegel’s THE BEGUILED, which, at first, she thought she’d never want to step on another filmmaker’s vision.
I would never remake someone else’s film. But then when I saw it, I knew what she was talking about. That it was rife for reinterpretation. It’s a story about a group of women told from a Seventies’ male point of view with this man soldier finding him. It reminded me of VIRGIN SUICIDES where there was something about it where I could connect to the aesthetic of these women trapped in this house. The book is told through the female characters’ perspectives. [I wanted] to set up this isolated world of women living together and then this enemy soldier comes in. The premise is so loaded and to me, it’s so much about power between men and women, shifting back and forth. It’s so heightened in this Southern atmosphere. I really tried to forget the other film and approach it in a new way.
As the men are off at war and the slaves have abandoned them, the ladies have formed an insular, practically utopian society. Unlike the 1971 version, which is very much captured through the male lens, Coppola’s modern interpretation leaves out any salaciousness, focusing on the women’s nuanced dynamics.
I definitely think there’s a hierarchy with women in a group together. There’s always power dynamics. I feel like men communicate verbally and physically, but women say so much through a glance or a tone. I love the way women communicate in that way only other women understand. I thought this story was so rife for all those glances and moments.
The most challenging aspect wasn’t necessarily squeezing into those corsets, but rather nailing the appropriate period-speak. Coppola stated,
The hardest part was the dialogue. When you improvise dialogue it has to sound real of the period, but you don’t want it to sound so foreign where it doesn’t feel natural. We would have to come up with stuff on set. We spent a week before rehearsing. We had an etiquette teacher and dance instructor and Civil War re-enactor, teaching us about the bandaging. We had a sewing person. Bible study. The etiquette teacher helped us a lot in understanding how they carried themselves at that time.
Fanning enjoyed that for once she was able to tap into a more comedic side to her personality.
I feel like I never played a character that was also so comedic. I got to say a lot of funny lines. [Coppola] allowed me to be playful with [Alicia]. I had a good time.
Over the course of the film’s run time, tension is brought to a slow boil before it scalds the viewer. Coppola was able to connote this atmospheric element through her little use of score and through natural light-driven aesthetic.
I wanted to really have as much tension as we could – sexual tension and what’s going to happen. With the sound, I kept the music really minimal. There’s these ominous tones underneath and letting these cannons and nature, where usually you’d have music and it breaks the tension. We tried to keep the tension suspended as much as we could.
For the look, I worked with cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd and we shot on film. I wanted it to have this very beautiful, feminine, gauzy look in the beginning that’s not threatening and then as the story turns, it gets darker. And also you feel the claustrophobia of them all trapped in the house with this danger. Hopefully you don’t notice it happening until you’re kinda in it.
Coppola’s Southern gothic drama may be serious, seductive and scalding, however, that doesn’t mean tensions were constantly heightened on set. The cast found ways to let off the steam in unique ways. Coppola said,
When we were filming we were having fun. We were enjoying being in New Orleans.
We did a little ‘Girls Gone Wild: Civil War Edition.’ At the craft service table, there were red solo cups which makes it look like these children are drinking beers. Elle and I would come running up in our dresses and flash an ankle. Funny little videos like that. The younger girls made funny little HAMILTON videos….
Musical.ly! The Musical.ly app.
Another anecdote Coppola shared has us looking forward to a calendar possibly coming our way.
Colin [Farrell] was a good sport. We were joking when he was doing the outdoor gardening scenes. We were taking photos to make a calendar – a sexy calendar.
The film was shot at the same plantation house as Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” masterpiece video. But this fantastic fun fact wasn’t disclosed to THE BEGUILED’s cast and crew prior to their shoot. Fanning said,
We saw that chair – the little girls saw the chair. And then we looked it up and it was the exact same chair. We then asked the owners… I was like mad they didn’t tell us. They were like, ‘Oh yeah. Beyoncé was here.’ I was like, ‘This is a way bigger deal than you know.’ We all had to take turns taking photos of being Beyoncé in the chair and then switching and being Serena Williams. Everyone got their own little photo.
THE BEGUILED opens on June 23 in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in other cities starting on June 30.