In her debut film The Virgin Suicides, Sofia Coppola showed the sexual fascination of young women with a passive male beauty. Her Cannes Award-winning The Beguiled is a refinement of the approach – too refined. The 2000 adaptation of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel justified its languid, often stilted prettiness by situating it as a period piece, refracted through imperfect memory and an unreliable narrator. Moreover, Coppola suffused The Virgin Suicides with a hothouse thickness, an approach to which she hasn’t returned. Bawdier and rowdier than even 2013’s The Bling Ring, The Beguiled is a hidebound and unsatisfying picture. It isn’t that the audience knows where the film is going before the opening scene has ended; it’s that Coppola wrings no unfamiliar nuances from the material. Good genre pictures have their wrinkles.
Based on Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan’s A Painted Bird starring Clint Eastwood, The Beguiled relies on the audience’s collective understanding of the tropes of feminine sexual repression during the late nineteenth century. In 1863, Miss Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies in Mississippi continues with French lessons while the men are fighting during the war’s bloodiest period. With the eponymous headmistress played by Nicole Kidman, they can do no less. Signs of resistance darken the curved, avid features of Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), however, when twelve-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) finds wounded Union corporal John McBurney hiding in the woods. As played by Colin Farrell, McBurney is a wily scamp who understands at once what he must do to curry favor; fortunately, the girls are willing to oblige. While Ms. Farnsworth plays the part of the imperious Southern dowager, condescending to a Yankee quasi-prisoner, Alicia (Elle Fanning) is practically oozing out of her corset.
That Coppola shows the women considerable more sympathy than Siegel did goes without saying. This is not to knock Siegel, an often superb director with an excellent sense of cutting and pace and whose sympathy for men in crisis didn’t prevent him from taking the piss out of them. Coppola and Siegel make for a fascinating study in contrasts. Fond of isolating her characters in frames, Coppola is a fabulist, whose films are taken with the reconstruction of a past which her women remember as a surrender to sensual abandon but to the audience unfolds as a present in which a reckoning is around the corner. This tension gives Lost in Translation and Marie Antoinette their queasy inertia. Paced like a comedy, The Beguiled invites us to have a chuckle at the expense of Miss Martha and Edwina (McBurney goes without saying) – a development not dissimilar to what Coppola did in The Bling Ring.
The problem with The Beguiled, though, is its fidelity to the Siegel film without also demonstrating a commensurate control over the familiar comedic elements. Coppola attempts something different while sticking rather closely to her tried-and-true. The women, to borrow Joe Reid’s phrase, sit in space. Using incident to develop character is not her strength; in her films she presents characters as their environments and social relations define them. Therefore, it’s uncomfortable watching Coppola rely on broad yuks; imagine Whit Stillman comedies resorting to cream pies. Siegel’s film used the chasms-wide difference in acrting styles of Eastwood and Geraldine Page to shrewd effect; the sexual tension was believable. Yet despite Coppola’s eye for the closeups of a woman’s thighs and arms – she has kept her fascination with our bodies intact – The Beguiled plays like your usual bodice ripper; at some point, McBurney is going to bed one of the women, and McBurney is going to get his. Her skin as translucent as Michelle Pfeiffer’s in Dangerous Liasions, Fanning gives the standout performance. Kidman is fine as the frosty matron who seethes as her younger charges outsmart (and outsex) her. When The Beguiled ends, the scenario still looks like the seminary in its first scenes: a house glimpsed through magnolia and mist.