Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 01, 2017 6:50 pm 
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The Beguiled concerns a Union soldier with a wounded leg rescued by the inhabitants of a semi-deserted girls school in the South, who excites, charms, and then annoys them, with unpleasant results, which we cannot reveal. From time to time there's a distant rumble of cannon fire, and sometimes Confederate soldiers pass by. But this all happens in a hothouse, under a glass dome.

In Sofia Coppola's film, photographed handsomely by dp Philippe Le Sourd ("There is barely a graceless frame in the whole affair" says Anthony Lane's lukewarm review), the lush, overgrown, vine-draped garden of the tall-columned mansion representing the semi-deserted young ladies' academy where the action transpires is permeated by the same pale blue haze as the big, tall, curtained rooms inside. The difference is that there's stuff growing apace outside. But stuff is growing inside too. Adolescent girls, presided over by a couple of lonely women, headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and lonely Edwina (Kirsten Dunst, cloyingly sad), who'd like to be taken somewhere far away from here. The next largest young lady is the flirty Alicia (Elle Fanning); and there are half a dozen other younger girls. They're stuck here. The War is on. This is the South, and so put-on southern accents come and go (several of the younger girls may really be southern). It's one of the middle-sized girls, a bird fancier, who rescues the far larger prey: Though Miss Martha wants to pretend that he won't be around long enough to have an identity, the soldier quickly asserts himself as Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell). He sports his own Irish brogue, which is okay, because, he explains later, he's a mercenary, and has no passionate dedication to the conflict (or local origin). He's a wounded bird, shot in the leg. And he lies exhausted.

When McBurney's rescued, it's Miss Martha, Nicole Kidman delicately firm, a little neutral, is the one who sees to it that the corporal is cared for - and kept sequestered in the Music Room. She herself lovingly cleanses and stitches his wound and washes his body. The camera, acting out her preoccupation, lingers long and cloyingly over his wound and his white flesh. The youngest girls, starved for excitement, are eager to get glimpses of the young man.

As he rapidly recovers and the females go from caution and hostility to friendliness, it's as if McBurney has been plopped down into a harem, and he woos each of those he has contact with in a different way. He sees Edwina as an easy mark, whereas Miss Martha has much more reserve and must be dealt with respectfully. The girl who found him he tells she is his greatest friend. He plays, and he will pay.

The film has an hour of fooling around. Then it gets to its main business, which is horror tinged with eroticism. Various critics have remarked that this is really pulp material that Coppola has sought to turn into an art film. But critics said the same thing of the 1971 Don Siegel version starring Clint Eastwood. Roger Moore of Movie Nation has commented that this version has "stripped the tale, cut the length, eschews menace and goes easy on the malice, which made the earlier version of the story work." A.A. Dowd of AV Club expresses a common opinion when he says the movie is "“tasteful' hothouse pulp, if such a thing is possible." In principle, Coppola has returned to the source novel by Thomas Cullinan. Comparisons with the earlier movie are odious, but inevitable, however, and not necessarily in the new one's favor.

Clearly Coppola has focused more on the moods of the different girls, and sheared away some of the action contained in the 1971 movie, the greater vigor of Clint Eastwood, and a black character, Hallie (Mae Mercer). And clearly, with the pale, pretty, and largely blond females and the attractively pastel images by Le Sourd, this version strives hard to be "tasteful," subtle, delicate. But when things get nasty, there's nothing delicate about the action any more. What is left is icky, somewhat repulsive, and finally puzzling and unsatisfying. It doesn't produce a profound emotion - only a troubled aesthetic frisson. Certain Latin American and Spanish directors do this sort of thing well. But why Sofia Coppola undertook it when the earlier version has clearly not been forgotten is hard to guess. The shorter run-time is one of the greatest virtues.

The Beguiled, 93 mins., debuted at Cannes in Competition, Director's prize. Other festivals include Los Angeles, Sydney, Provincetown, Moscow, and Karlovy. Limited US release 23 Jun. 2017; wider release 1 July. Metacritic rating 76%.

For a roundup of some intelligent comments on the earlier movie and comparisons with the new one, see Critics Roundup. Scott Tofoya of Brooklyn Magazine raved: "Siegel’s acidic pastoral is a candidate for the hard-bitten journeyman auteur’s finest film, though it’s got stiff competition... The Beguiled‘s female avengers may have kept the film from the Western canon, but make no mistake this has all the fire and fury of John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher and Andre De Toth wrapped in one bandaged leg."

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