Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Beguiled (2017)

THE BEGUILED                   C+                  
USA  (93 mi)  2017 d:  Sofia Coppola                       Official Facebook

Ostensibly a remake or retelling of an early Clint Eastwood film directed by Don Siegel, The Beguiled (1971), that rare Eastwood movie where he actually gets his comeuppance, and from none other than stage icon Geraldine Page, though one would think this is more heavily influenced by the gorgeously stylized Peter Weir film Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), one of the most spectacularly beautiful films ever made, described as a turn of the century costume drama about the heavily repressed world of girls at a boarding school, “a magnificently sensuous and stunningly visualized film balancing the beauty of young innocent girls against the beauty of nature, which seems to be so beguiling on the outside, green and yellow flora, pastel colored flowers contrasted against the repression of the Victorian era and the unseen, inexplicable and savage side of nature where terror lurks underneath the surface, and where the two seem worlds apart.”  Weir’s film is the same cloistered territory Sofia Coppola enters with her new film, finding the sexually repressed secrets that lie buried under the surface of her socially isolated Southern belles, offering a sharp contrast to the lurid beauty of the Gothic Expressionism in the plantation era of the South during the Civil War.  The lack of a contemporary musical soundtrack is perhaps the biggest departure from Coppola’s earlier work, while also missing is the non-narrative, stream-of-conscious experimental style she is known for, usually finding gentler pleasures in subtleties and poetic tonalities.  But the film works in another way as well, though perhaps inadvertently.  In an era of Trump, by ignoring historical realities altogether, Coppola has made the ultimate film about white privilege, and done so by throwing out any hint of slavery from the storyline, a conscious effort on Coppola’s part, claiming she didn’t want to treat the subject lightly, suggesting her take was about the gender dynamics of the Confederacy, not the racial ones (Sofia Coppola Says “The Beguiled” Is About The Gender Dynamics Of ...), despite the overt presence of a slave character in both the book it was adapted from, a novel written by Thomas P. Cullinan in 1966, and the previous film, where a slave named Hallie (Mae Mercer) is charged with caring for Eastwood as he heals from a serious injury, and is perhaps the only one not dazzled by his erotic charms, realizing whatever status or privilege available to the other women are not offered to her.  By simply excising the existence of slaves from the story, Coppola has done exactly what Trump has done, cater exclusively to a white audience.  While it may be a major misstep on her part, it feeds into the criticism that she can only make films about the white experience, where nothing that she offers speaks to people of color.  In setting the film during the Civil War, this just feels like a huge limitation on her part, though it may actually reflect the state of mind of Southern whites living in that era, who viewed slaves as property, as something less than human, yet ironically this class advantage reserved for whites was totally dependent upon a slavery system of free labor that remained the foundation of their very existence.  It would be so much more “beguiling” had the director actually dealt with this issue in some prominent fashion rather than to simply ignore it altogether, but to do so really speaks of her own white privilege.    

That being said, this is easily Ms. Coppola’s least challenging and most conventional effort, suggesting this will likely pave the way for her biggest commercial success, though it is arguably among her weakest efforts, despite having its premiere at Cannes, with Coppola strangely and mysteriously winning the award for Best Director, only the second female director to win the prize in the festival’s 70-year history, the only other being Soviet filmmaker Yuliya Solntseva in 1961 for THE CHRONICLE OF FLAMING YEARS.  The last time Coppola competed for the Palme d’Or was in 2006 with MARIE ANTOINETTE when she was famously booed off the stage.  While Cannes juries have been suspect in their choices lately, ignoring Maren Ade’s hilarious and remarkably inventive German tragi-comedy Toni Erdmann (2016) in the previous year in favor of Ken Loach’s utterly conventional I, Daniel Blake (2016).  It appears that jury blew the chance to highlight a leading female director whose bold film and unorthodox direction was head and shoulders above the others, so the next year, perhaps guilt-ridden for slighting women through the years, they pick one of the three women with films in competition, but picked the wrong woman, as Lynne Ramsay was the better choice with her film YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE (2017), receiving a 7-minute standing ovation, with critics particularly lauding her direction, but she was instead awarded Best Screenplay, with lead actor Joaquin Phoenix winning Best Actor.  Little of this actually makes any sense.  Coppola’s film is to be commended for the gorgeous stylization of Southern Gothic, with cinematographer Philippe Le Lourd the real stand-out for capturing the picturesque look, creating an interior mood using only candlelight, recalling Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON (1975), but the film fails to address why she chose to remake the earlier film, as it is questionable whether she actually improves upon the original, and one would have to think it doesn’t.  Siegel’s film is about sexual hysteria, accenting the swirling melodrama that exists when a wounded Union soldier recovers from his wounds in a Confederate all-girl school, where he flirts and stokes the flame of their repressed sexual desires, making them all swoon at the very sight of having a man on the premises.  While Siegel’s film depicts the point of view of Eastwood’s easy charm and male bravado, it doesn’t in the least slight the women’s point of view, or the slave for that matter, as the film is really a battle of the sexes, where the drama comes to a head when both positions are challenged.  Coppola’s film lacks that balance, and instead depicts the story purely from a woman’s view, where it’s actually more comical, surprisingly, but lacks the physical brutality, exaggerated delirium, and depth of performance in the original, both male and female, as who can match the towering power of the great Geraldine Page, who is at her most devious in the role when confronting Eastwood.  Coppola’s film doesn’t really hold a candle to the original, largely due to its own timidity and lack of spark between Nicole Kidman and Colin Farrell, though it is immaculately photographed.  

With much of this playing out like a fairy tale, Coppola has chosen to bathe her film in a soft light, actually resembling the look of old, faded photographs, with the sound of gunshots and explosions continually heard off in the distance.  Set in Virginia during the Civil War, with 12-year old Amy (Oona Laurence), a young girl alone in the woods searching for mushrooms, this could be a variation of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, as she quickly encounters the metaphorical wolf in Colin Farrell, Corporal John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound in his leg, where she helps walk him to the sanctuary of the Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, an all-girls boarding school run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman, whose lurid backstory is also omitted).  Once safely inside, he becomes a curiosity, with all eyes gazing upon him as if descended from the celestial skies, where each seems wrapped in their own internalized fantasy of how they see this man.  Some of the youngest think to turn him over to the nearby Confederate soldiers, but the two older girls, Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), their meek and dutiful instructor, isolated and alone, like a bird in a gilded cage, perhaps seeing a man for the first time in her life, and an overly coquettish teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning), not to mention Miss Martha herself, seem smitten by having a male presence, deciding to mend his wounds while nursing him back to health, scrubbing his body herself while declaring his room “off-limits” to the six girls residing there.  But this doesn’t stop each one from secretly paying the corporal a visit, where he delights in charming each and every one.  While Miss Martha is all convention and formality, representative of the manners practiced by the overly protected Southern belles, she treats the prisoner with all due respect, even offering him wine and pleasant company after dinner, failing to mention his presence to the passing soldiers that look in on them from time to time, as they themselves are in need of protection during wartime, asking instead if one of them might share some ammunition for a pistol she keeps handy.  What follows is a comic choreography of repressed sexual curiosity, rotating between the three oldest women, but sometimes the youngest as well, with each one thinking he is paying them the most attention.  This rivalry, however, leads to bickering and backstabbing, with each apparently figuring to win the handsome prince for themselves.  Once his health improves, however, Miss Martha sets a deadline, forcing him to make his own way, letting him go with no designs of turning him in.  Many of the girls protest, as does McBurney himself, having little interest in the war, as he is a deserter from the ranks, preferring to make himself useful on the premises, but to Miss Martha that option is unthinkable.  We soon discover why, as instead of leaving, he is discovered in the bedroom of the hormonally challenged Alicia, found by Edwina, who he professed his love for, and is shell-shocked by what she sees.  With both lovebirds professing their innocence, McBurney confronts a startled Edwina at the top of the stairs, pushing him away, where he goes toppling down the stairs, seriously re-injuring his leg.  In the pandemonium that follows, emotions erupt, as formality is thrown out the window, actually turning momentarily into exaggerated camp while McBurney loses his leg, though without the cringe-inducing graphic detail of the original.  When he realizes what’s happened, he’s outraged, growing more and more belligerent, blaming Miss Martha for jealously maiming him because he picked another girl, finding the gun, and literally terrorizing the girls, all except Edwina who walks into his bedroom, locks the door, and crawls into bed with him.  Nonetheless, he’s made it clear why no men are allowed on the premises, as he offsets the balance of nature, like a fox in a chicken coop, ultimately showing no respect whatsoever, grabbing all the alcohol he can drink until he passes out, allowing the girls to quickly devise a plan to get rid of the wolf, which works perfectly, exactly as it does in the original.  Incredulously, these women lack for nothing, as they are always dressed in their Sunday best, immaculately clean, and have all the food and provisions they need, and then some, living luxuriously in a time of deprivation and war, while others in the South are on the verge of starvation.  It’s a fantasy version of the hard times that do exist, like taking a left turn into a parallel universe, with Coppola remaining immune to the historical realities of the times. While she does enter into the giddy mindsets of the girls, exposing their unique group dynamic, characterized by privileged, overly sheltered lives and extreme social isolation, her portraiture leaves out all the power and melodramatic drama at the heart of the original.   

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