The Beguiled is an airy Grimm’s fairy tale. It is a dark Midsummer’s romp, turned upside down, where Puck confronts strict social norms inside a gilded, gated community. Puck doesn’t fair so well in this version. He doth offend and his wounds doth not mend.
Director, Sofia Coppola won best director with The Beguiled at Cannes International Film Fest this year. She is only the second woman to win this category. Maybe the panel was afraid of what would happen to them if a woman didn’t win this year. Her movie is a timely remake in a year when an open misogynist can become President and Bill Cosby can get a mistrial. In this gossamer backdrop, the women are isolated and unprotected during a time of war. They prevail using the very rules that society placed in their way.
Set in the Victorian age, it is proper that a woman put her stamp on this story, taking the act of creation back. In all good Gothic literature, it is the woman who has the power. It is Dracula’s control over the school mistress, Mina that leads to his demise. And in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, it is the desire to control the feminine role of creation that destroys the good doctor.
The world outside the girls’ school gate is the world of men, of destruction, and of Civil War. The world inside the gates is an Eden. The women keep what is left of virtue, the arts, and civility, safe inside her gates. Eve was always in this garden and she always will be. Adam is merely a foreigner, wanting to tend her weeds. He is kicked out after tasting her apple pie. McBurney considers them “vengeful bitches”, but in fact they never do anything but care for and feed him.
Interestingly Coppola’s version is almost a frame by frame copy of Don Seigel’s 1971 movie. But the cinematography differs greatly. Her version is gorgeous, every scene a rich impressionist painting. Where Seigel’s movie shows the poverty of a gritty old South after years of war, Coppola highlights the feminine power to maintain civility and beauty during such times. The vines growing on the Antebellum mansion keep it grounded in natural beauty, rather than pulling it into decay.
In reviewing this film, I was drawn to what was removed from the 1971 original and what was added from the book. Director Sofia Coppola retells the story from the female point of view. She made the only male character, Irish – a foreigner, as in the book by the same name. Colin Farrell has stated this allows the story to depart from simply a North versus South theme, and focuses on man versus woman – the foreign of any kind. Clint Eastwood’s version of McBurney was not Irish, he was simply a Yankee with no morals.
Clint Eastwood’s John McBurney lies and tells the women what they want to hear. Colin Farrell’s version never needs to lie. He is straight and direct with the head mistress, father-like and sincere with Amy (the child that saved him), and tells Edwina (played by Kirsten Dunst) that she is too good for him and she lacks self-confidence. This makes him a much more likeable devil than Eastwood’s unapologetic version.
A scene with an overt threat of rape from Confederate soldiers is removed from this rendition. We barely see the soldiers. But the curious girls want to meet them, adding to their innocence and isolation. This shifts the threat to that of a Southern lady losing her composure in the face of danger, not simply rape.
The original film uses voiceovers for the female’s character’s secret desires. It tried to create a dream-like, hazy environment. These voiceovers dumb down and simplify the female psyche. The new version shows more respect to the women and audience, by using knowing-looks and subtext.
Restraint and subtly are the focus of this movie. In stark contrast to most Hollywood thrillers, there is no musical score until the end. No soaring romantic or grinding tense tunes. The women’s monotonous days are marked by Mother Nature and the increasingly fretful sound of feet in the empty, echoing mansion. Tension is created with acting alone.
As a whole I give this film a solid 3 out of 5. It is ultimately Gothic pump fiction gussied up in beautiful costumes and décor. If you like art films that psychoanalyze, it’s a 4. If you like thrillers, it’s a 1. You’ll laugh more in this film than scream. But if you are a misogynist who likes thrillers, it’s a solid 5, and you should run.
If you’re interested in doing your own comparison, the 1971 original is available on demand, and will run on HBO on June 30th in the middle of the night.
The Beguiled opens in New York and Los Angeles on June 23rd and has wide release June 30th. You can watch the official trailer below.
Photo Source: The Beguiled, Ben Rothstein/Focus Features