The Beguiled is Sofia Coppola’s strangely toothless remake of Don Siegel’s film from 1971 that was a Clint Eastwood vehicle. Coppola has said she wanted to focus more on the women, and that’s true, but she has also removed almost all of the lurid, Southern Gothic nature of the previous film, and instead has presented a bland entertainment.
The story of the two films is pretty much identical–a wounded Union soldier, in this case Colin Farrell, is found by one of the girls of a largely abandoned boarding school. She helps him, and much to her reluctance, the headmistress (Nicole Kidman), takes him in. The presence of a man in a female-only enclave stirs up desires and jealousies, especially those of the spinster teacher (Kirsten Dunst) and a precocious teenager (Elle Fanning) that leads to tragedy.
The only way in which Coppola’s film exceeds Siegel’s is the way it looks–the cinematography is stunning. Coppola changes the location from Mississippi to Virginia, and I’m not sure how much Spanish moss there is in Virginia, but Philippe Le Sourd does a magnificent job of capturing the moonlight and magnolias South.
But here is what Coppola has removed, and I think to the detriment–in the 1971 film, the headmistress had an incestuous affair with her brother. There is a scene in which Confederate troops show menace and threaten rape. The nubile teenager tells her age as 17, and basically throws herself at Eastwood. The climactic scene, which I won’t reveal here, is a prolonged, suspenseful scene in Siegel’s film, but in the Coppola version it’s over in about thirty seconds.
Perhaps most importantly, Coppola does not retain the slave character played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 film (it is explained away in one line–“the slave have run off”). Many critics have written that Coppola has made a Civil War film that doesn’t even talk about the issues of the Civil War. Indeed, this could have just as easily been a German soldier in a French school, or an American soldier in a Japanese one, or so on.
But I think that’s a little unfair, because all of Coppola’s films are about people who are trapped, mostly women. Whether it’s Tokyo, the Chateau Marmont, or Versailles, she’s interested in characters who are invisibly chained to a way of life. But in The Beguiled, who is trapped? Kidman and the girls, as prisoners of the way of life that is “gone with the wind?” Or Farrell, who is literally a prisoner of a school full of girls who lock him in his room and basically emasculate him.
If I had not seen the original film (which I did over the weekend) I might have liked this better, as it does not compare well. If I hadn’t, I might have though to myself, “Is that all there is?” but I know that there is more, and Coppola took it out and added not much of anything.