The Beguiled (2017) Directed by Sofia Coppola. With Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning.
Sofia Coppola’s remake of the 1971 Don Siegel film of the same name draws less from that movie and more from the original source material of Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel. Coppola’s screenplay switches the perspective from the male gaze of the 70’s film to that of a group of isolated women who happen across an injured enemy solider (Colin Farrell) 1-year before the end of the American Civil War.
Winner of Best Director at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Coppola and her cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd establish a strong sense of atmosphere, creating a tactile background canvas that evokes a southern gothic dreamlike quality to build an absorbing story which is in part a study of the power balance between men and women as told through the lens of the past.
What’s beautiful about Coppola’s adaptation is the way in which non-verbal communication is as much a part of the writing as the dialogue. The dynamic between the women is deftly applied; women who are trained to behave well around men, to please men, but until Farrel’s arrival, have had no opportunity to put their training into practice. His arrival disrupts their group, creating a sense of competition among them that is all of divisive, dangerous and excting.
Nicole Kidman is the matriach of the group – strong when she needs to be – the kind of woman who knows what needs to be done, struggling to fend off her own desires. As she tends to Farrell’s wounds, her wet cloth moves from his torso, down his abdomen to his inner thigh. It’s the sort of thing you’d find in a trashy romance novel and her yearning is palpable, but there’s dignity and sympathy in Kidman’s portrayal of a woman carrying a headmistress-like responsibility of being the leader of an inherited family unit.
The second elder of the group, Kirsten Dunst gives a more vulnerable performance than we’re used to from her, seemingly tapping into a younger version of herself. There’s something fragile but distantly hopeful about her. She’s different from the others, which is highlighted in a dinner scene in which she wears an off-the-shoulder dress (considered vulgar at the time), to which Kidman’s character points out how Dunst is from “town society with different rules”. Her competition with Elle Fanning’s more openly flirtatious character makes for a risky dynamic that adds intrigue to the drama. Fanning is self-absorbed but her youth makes her potentially the most inviting prospect to Farrell’s mysterious character.
The sudbued lighting and leaning toward the effect of natural light adds further texture and atmosphere. Shot on 35mm on one location in New Orleans, Coppola offers depth in her cinematic framing, but with a close intimacy that translates to the small screen.
The use of music is minimal and plays under the surface of the drama, which allows the natural sounds to be a more prominent feature in the tapestry of the storytelling. The distant boom of canons are met with wide long shots of beautiful treelines poisoned by plumes of war smoke. The lighting is notably subdued and natural – Coppola opting to use candles in the dark and plain daylight in the morning.
With a slight running time of 1hr-30mins, Coppola creates a good amount of drama and intrigue around a small setting. The young actresses are excellent in supporting roles, while threat lurks inside and outsdie the confines of the house they share. A dangerous liaision story of manipulation and desire told with artful style.