Between MY COUSIN RACHEL and WONDER WOMAN, it’s a bad time to be a male cinephile with fragile masculinity. Adding more kindling onto the burning bed is writer-director Sofia Coppola’s THE BEGUILED, an adaptation of author Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel. This remake of the 1971 adaptation by director Don Siegel is a scorching, searing, seductive period piece, a Southern gothic drama that seeks to castrate toxic modern male energy – and the water comes to a slow boil before it scalds. That said, its defiance is restrained, avoiding any abject misandry.
Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell, who subversively plays his former real-life bad-boy persona) probably would’ve been better off dying in those Virginia woods, but the need to survive got the best of him. So he deserted his wartime post, getting badly wounded in the process. Close to death, he’s found by clever young Amy (powerhouse Oona Laurence), who takes pity upon his poor soul, schlepping him back to her residence at Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies. The school has all but emptied out except for the matriarch, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst, whose talent for dry wit and vulnerability shine), and students Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), Marie (scene stealer Addison Riecke), and Emily (Emma Howard). Naturally, his presence shakes up their little utopian society.
Coppola’s adaptation definitively changes the perspective. It morphs from the former film’s sexism-charged, “He-Man-Woman-Hating” portrait of McBurney as a victim and the women as the enemy, to McBurney as the enemy and the women as the victim – incredibly formidable, capable and intelligent women, at that. He’s essentially a blank slate, representing different archetypes to the different women: To the younger girls, particularly Amy, he’s a compassionate friend. To Alicia, he’s a sexual object – the epitome of the lustful desire she can’t control. To Edwina, he’s the romantic white knight, beckoning her to come away with him, seizing on her compassion. And to Martha, he’s a caretaker, a complement to her power and strength. In the 1971 version, the women are tropes. But in Coppola’s hands, Cullinan’s source material becomes a sly treatise – a takedown – on toxic masculinity and virility. She takes back the narrative, re-focusing on the women’s POV. It’s got a blinding edge, and cuts deep into the flesh.
That said, when washing it clean of some of Siegel’s more troubling and salacious issues, a certain set of challenges arise. The pulled focus becomes a touch too softened. What defines the situations, the escalating tension, and the predicaments from his side? Sure, the gravitas of McBurney’s hobbled autonomy lands, but it’s lacking ever so slightly. He’s a prisoner in a claustrophobic environment (as emphasized by Coppola’s use of aspect ratio), however, his lockdown isn’t as confining as Siegel’s portrayal.
For the most part, Coppola and Co. do an excellent job. Sounds of nature take precedence over traditional use of score, which only barely enters the picture in the third act so as not to disturb the mounting tension. The ethereal beauty created by Philippe Le Sourd’s natural-light effused cinematography, Anne Ross’ production design and Stacey Battat’s gorgeous costume design adds a gauzy, ultra-feminine flair. The female gaze is represented not as something sordid, but as character-based, as their desires are the main theme. Coppola and her ensemble nail the unspoken underpinnings of female group dynamics – the glances across the dinner table or in the hall, and vocal intonations when we casually tease each other. The witty repartee is also there, in the subtly comical insinuations about exposed shoulders, nice jewelry and finery worn during daylight hours, and in the euphemism-laden talk about an apple pie recipe. Coppola finds the horror in how Kidman ominously pronounces “anatomy.” It’s wickedly delicious. Nevertheless, Coppola “tells” through explicitly-stated dialogue instead of “showing” through action on more than a few occasions. Telling us he’s a lout is great, but showing us (as the 1971 version did) adds nuanced power to his deceit.
Siegel’s version is inherently salacious, jarring and reactionary. After all, he includes Miss Martha’s incestuous relationship with her brother, a hallucinatory threesome, and much more gore. Listen, it rolls into camp on a few occasions. He also takes greater pains highlighting the symbolism – both of the animals (like a no-longer-included crow tied up, and the childhood naiveté represented by Amy’s turtle) and the now-excised character of African-American maid “Hallie.” Hallie’s absence presents a bit of a double-edged sword. It’s completely understandable that Coppola didn’t want to include her, as she’s most definitely an inflammatory “Mammy” archetype no one wants to see portrayed cinematically anymore. Still, the character provided a fascinating contrast with McBurney, as both are prisoners of the Farnsworths. When he tried to find an ally in her, even she said, “hell no.”
Overall, what Coppola has done by reclaiming the story as a captivating, spellbinding female one is like a shot of adrenaline into the cinematic social consciousness.
THE BEGUILED is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. It opens in more cities on June 30.