Saturday, July 15, 2017

Unstitched: Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled

Note: There are spoilers in this review.

In Don Siegel's 1971 Southern Gothic melodrama, The Beguiled, which is set in rural Mississippi in 1863, the middle of the American Civil War, an injured Union soldier named John McBurney (Clint Eastwood) is rescued by 12-year-old Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin), a student at an all-girls' boarding school run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Geraldine Page). The headmistress is initially reluctant to board the wounded McBurney but she finally agrees to take him in until he heals, at which point she can turn him over to the Confederates. But during the time that he's convalescing, in a locked music room and consistently under watch, he begins to cultivate intimate relations with the young women in the house who have not previously experienced the presence of a man. They include the independent-minded but emotionally scarred schoolteacher, Edwina (Elizabeth Hartman), and a sultry teenage student, Carol (Jo Ann Harris), who teases and flirts with McBurney. The soldier has also stirred feelings in Miss Farnsworth, who keeps her emotions locked up like her girls; it's implied that her stifled demeanor hides the incestuous relationship she once had with her late brother. McBurney spurns her sexual attentions while encouraging relations with Edwina and acting on his lust for Carol. When Edwina catches him in bed with Carol, her fury over his betrayal results in her knocking a pleading McBurney down the stairs and severely breaking his already wounded leg. In order to keep him alive, Miss Farnsworth instructs the girls to preparing him for the amputation of his broken limb, which draws the wrath of the desperate soldier towards the women who have taken him in.

Based on a 1966 novel, A Painted Devil, by Thomas B. Cullinan, Siegel's The Beguiled employs a variety of Gothic tropes – including hyperstylized erotic dreams with religious imagery and taboo trysts – so overripe that they would gag Carson McCullers or Tennessee Williams. Siegel was an efficient B-movie stylist, with the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), Crime in the Streets (1956), Hell Is for Heroes (1962) and Ronald Reagan's last picture, The Killers (1964), to his credit. But he has no feel for the turbulent undercurrents of eroticism that lurk under Southern propriety. Which is why Geraldine Page, as the stiffly proper Miss Farnsworth, is allowed to turn sexual repression into a pedestal she mounts stridently rather than a character trait to explore. It's also why Clint Eastwood, whose McBurney begins as the randy fox in the hen house, soon begins hissing lines of self-righteous indignation that within the next year (as in Siegel's Dirty Harry) would become his career trademark. Essentially, The Beguiled is no more than an Eastwood castration fantasy where – despite his wily-scoundrel tendencies – he's essentially playing a man's man who is helplessly at the mercy of sexually starved women (just as he was as the hounded DJ in Play Misty for Me, which Eastwood directed and starred in later that year). Siegel makes everything that's suggestible and mysterious in the best Southern Gothic so explicit and painfully obvious that The Beguiled is to the world of Tennessee Williams what Mark Rydell's adaptation of The Fox (1968) was to D.H. Lawrence – except that the material in The Beguiled is nowhere near as enticing as Williams or Lawrence. The film, with a script by former blacklisted screenwriter Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, is an ersatz Southern Gothic that uses the genre as stitching to embroider a psychological drama of entrapment, but without the motivating underpinnings of entrapment that would make coherent sense of it. With the exception of Mae Mercer as the black servant, Hallie, whose dynamic performance brings home the torn fabric of a nation at war over slavery, and Elizabeth Hartman's Edwina, whose fragile hopes for fleeing the claustrophobia of Miss Martha's control become cruelly dashed, the picture comes a cropper.

Geraldine Page and Clint Eastwood in Don Siegel's 1971 version

In her new remake, Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, Somewhere) has the good sense to cut away all the Gothic embellishments, like those painfully bad dream sequences. She also dispenses with Miss Martha's barely believable incestuous past. Although Coppola has stirred controversy by removing the character of Hallie, I think the charges against her of whitewashing and racism are completely off the beam. She is trying to shift the focus of the story away from the issues of the Civil War, to McBurney's stoking the libido of the women in the school, their imposed isolation and how their unacknowledged fears and desires get stirred by a male stranger who emerges from the war. Just about everything about Coppola's The Beguiled shimmers with intelligence – from the casting to the dreamily evocative cinematography by Phillipe Le Sourd (A Good Year, The Grandmaster) – except, unfortunately, for the material itself. Ironically, Coppola's wise decision to cut away the dreck of the original has laid bare the weaknesses in the source. And she hasn't really replaced it with anything. The original movie's Gothic pretensions turn out to be the only thing that bound Siegel's version so that it made some kind of point (no matter how questionable). So Coppola is left with nothing but a series of barely articulated scenes that don't hold together. The flaws of The Beguiled become increasingly glaring as the material becomes more unstitched.

As good as the actors are, they're left giving close to pantomime performances. Colin Farrell is without question a stronger choice for McBurney, not only because he's a much better actor than Eastwood but also because he projects a complex machismo that reveals much more than male boast. Farrell's McBurney is a working-class Irish immigrant who joins the Union Army because they pay him to fight. His fear of imminent death is what drives his sexual appetite – and he seeks refuge in the school to satisfy it. The primal terror of being killed also stokes his desire to connect with these innocent women who have been sheltered from the war he's escaped. But the film does little to develop his dread. As Miss Martha Nicole Kidman is a vast improvement over Geraldine Page, but that's almost all she is. As she demonstrated in The Others, Kidman is terrific at animating the tension between what lurks beneath the surface of a character and what that character chooses to reveal, but as she demonstrated in Hemingway and Gellhorn and Lion, at this point in her career Kidman is demonstrating much more range. And in The Beguiled, her repressive hold on the girls is left too ambiguous. We don't really know why she isolates them from the outside world (as she simultaneously schools them in preparation for living in it). My guess – from a brief scene Miss Martha has with McBurney – is that she once had a lover who perhaps died in battle, therefore her need to bottle her grief is also acted out by keeping the girls from experiencing the same romantic heartbreak. (The boys they'd meet might die in battle just as hers did.) But Kidman's character is all shadings with no weight in the role to ground her and give her focus. While I appreciate that Coppola doesn't turn Elle Fanning's Alicia into the overt sultry tease that Jo Ann Harris's Carol was in Siegel's version, her dalliance with McBurney barely makes any sense because there's so little flirtatiousness between them. (These omissions open up some of the flaws in the plot, too. Since McBurney has already promised that night to go to someone else's room, and Miss Martha was also waiting for him to make it to her bed, how does he even begin to think he wouldn't be caught with Alicia?) Kirsten Dunst gives the strongest performance in the picture despite the thinness of the role. She's not only able to make Edwina's hunger to leave the school palpable, but she lets us see how it deepens her feelings for McBurney – even as her desire also blinds her to his predilection for sexual deception.

Billie Whitelaw, Jane Horrocks and Joan Plowright in The Dressmaker (1988)

The reasons people hide themselves from the violence and turmoil of war, with the scent of sex and death always surrounding them, has always been a great subject. Jim O'Brien's The Dressmaker (1988), from John McGrath's script based on Beryl Bainbridge's 1973 novel The Secret Glass, is the picture I thought about most while watching The Beguiled. Set in Liverpool in 1944, during the nightly blackouts and food rations, the story centers on two sisters, Nellie (Joan Plowright), the dressmaker of the title, and Margo (Billie Whitelaw), her younger sibling who works on an assembly line in a munitions plant. While Nellie makes other people's dreams come true with her dresses, she has no dreams of her own. Nellie is a seething spinster who's rigidly devoted to the customs of the past and respectability, that is, the manners that she feels have been disrupted by the war. But her good taste serves as character armour to mask murderous rage. Margo is her opposite: boisterous, up for a song, a good-time gal looking for the next party. Yet she's vulnerable to the watchful eye of her sister. While in Nellie's care, her husband died from mustard-gas poisoning he suffered in World War One. Since that tragedy, the sisters have continued to carry a simmering contempt for each other. At least, it simmers until they do battle over their meek 17-year-old niece Rita (Jane Horrocks), who was left in their care by her father (Pete Postlethwaite) after her mother died. When Rita falls in love with Wesley (Tim Ransom), a young American soldier from Mississippi stationed in Liverpool, it ignites the tension between the two siblings. Like the city itself, Rita is waging an inner war between freeing her desires to express her sexuality like Margo, or becoming as prudish and as hard as Nellie. Rita is strongly attracted to Wesley, who represents the exoticism of America to her. He's a symbol of the very freedom she dreams for. But she is also terrified of his sexual advances towards her. Since Nellie is a self-righteous custodian of old values, she becomes an emotionally suffocating presence in the house.The desperate Rita goes to Margo for help because things for her are becoming emotionally and sexually undone. She hopes that Margo will understand her fears and help her win Wesley. But Margo, despite her libidinous temperament, is too timid to stand up to the power of Nellie's disdain for her. Nellie naturally triumphs in the end.

Kirsten Dunst and Collin Farrell in The Beguiled

The Beguiled is technically much better made than The Dressmaker, but though it shares some of the earlier film's dynamics, it lacks its teeming power and dramatic logic. The audience I saw The Beguiled with actually laughed at some of the later dramatic moments – not because they were trying to shut out parts of the picture that were disturbing them (which is usually the case) but because the links of motivating behaviour are missing between the scenes. Seeing Colin Farrell docile one second and then suddenly raging in the next makes it seem like a reel went missing somewhere. In a sense, The Beguiled is all plot and it's not a very good one to start with. Sofia Coppola has an uncanny ability to find meaning in stories that only have the suggestion of meaning. That's why Lost in Translation (2003), with its floating sense of dislocation and jet lag, reaches its own equilibrium rather than feeling as if someone imposed stability on it. She did the same thing in Somewhere (20111), where the emotionally lost bad-boy actor Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) meets up again with his estranged young daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning). As Johnny and Cleo go through an itinerary of activities – from her skating class to a quick trip to Milan to attend a glitzy award show – Somewhere focuses on the emotional undercurrents of those moments as they morph into one another. By allowing us the opportunity to observe how Johnny and Cleo begin to connect to each other, Coppola stirs us beyond words. The Beguiled is missing all the undercurrents that made Lost in Translation and Somewhere such bracing experiences because she finds no room here to get under the story.

You could say that Sofia Coppola's strengths are the opposite of her father's. Francis Coppola finds his bearings in genre material (The Godfather, The Conversation) where he can bring out the temperament in plot-driven stories, while she functions least successfully in that world (as shown by her muddled debut The Virgin Suicides, and the later Marie Antoinette). On the other hand, she works miracles with narratives that aren't chained to the conventions of storytelling, while when her father goes for mood over story (in pictures like One From the Heart, Rumble Fish and Tucker) he gets hopelessly lost. The Beguiled feels underdeveloped, as if Sofia Coppola thought by shifting the focus of the story she'd find what the original lacked. But all The Beguiled tells you is that her remake is no more beguiling than the original.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Talking Out of Turn: A Collection of Reviews, Interviews and Remembrances currently being assembled on Blogger.

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