Warning: This post contains spoilers.
I can understand why the Cannes festival jury awarded Sofia Coppola with the best director prize in May for her work on The Beguiled (which opened in Chicago last Friday). The film is exquisitely realized, with strong ambience, carefully modulated performances, and a painterly attention to textures. It builds upon Coppola’s work in such movies as Marie Antoinette and The Bling Ring, drawing viewers into a particular time and place through precise detail and subtle handling of social cues. And like all of Coppola’s efforts to date, The Beguiled effectively conveys a sense of isolation, which gives the movie a melancholy tinge.
The Beguiled takes place at a girls’ boarding school in the Virginia countryside during the Civil War. The school is cut off from combat as well as society at large, and Coppola emphasizes the residents’ solitude through hushed sound design and close-ups of random items that suggest the lingering attention of someone with little to do but study her surroundings.
The Beguiled is better directed than it is written, however. In its study of interpersonal rivalry and sexual tension, the film doesn’t say anything that wasn’t better articulated in Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the same source material, a 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinan. Coppola’s movie contains most of the same incidents as Siegel’s, yet her adaptation doesn’t grant them the same depth. This is most apparent during a crucial incident that Siegel’s film mined for ripe ambiguity; Coppola presents it straightforwardly, denying the multiple interpretations that the other movie fostered. She also delivers a simpler characterization of the central figure than Siegel’s film did, and this also limits the number of possible readings of the narrative.
The story still generates fascination, if not quite beguilement. It begins when a little girl from the boarding school discovers a Union soldier with a wounded leg while picking mushrooms in the woods. She brings him back to the school, where the teachers and students decide to help him recover rather than turn him over to the Confederate army. As he heals, the soldier inspires the curiosity of all the school’s inhabitants. For the younger girls, he’s simply a mysterious stranger; for the older girls and women, he becomes a source of erotic possibility. The teachers grow to desire him, but he rejects their interest in favor of an older student.
Things come to a head when one of the teachers finds the soldier kissing the student in her room; the teacher confronts him, and he accidentally falls down the stairs, landing on his wound. Worried that the wound will become infected, the headmistress decides to amputate the soldier’s leg. The soldier, when he comes to, believes the headmistress acted out of jealousy rather than concern, and he becomes violently angry. The women and girls then conspire to kill the soldier before he can act on his anger.
The pivotal moment concerns the amputation of the soldier’s leg. It’s here that the women decisively assert their power over the man, precipitating his outrage and ultimately his death. Siegel and his screenwriters made it unclear whether the soldier really needed to have his leg amputated, raising the possibility that the headmistress acted out jealousy and a desire for retribution. Coppola, on the other hand, shows that the soldier does need to lose his leg in order to survive. The headmistress is shown to act rationally, which makes the soldier’s subsequent rage seem like the result of a misunderstanding. The final third of Coppola’s film lacks the mystery of Siegel’s, proceeding dutifully toward its grisly conclusion without generating questions along the way.
How ironic that Siegel, a director best known for his work on genre films, created an artier provocation out of The Beguiled than Coppola, a director known for making art movies. Siegel’s achievement owed a lot to Clint Eastwood, who played the Union soldier in his version. Eastwood built upon his movie-star charisma as well as the violence associated with it to convey the dark fascination the women felt toward his character. Colin Farrell, who plays the soldier in Coppola’s version, doesn’t carry the same associations that Eastwood did (which isn’t his fault), and his character lacks a sense of ambiguity as a result. The women’s desire for him stems from his attractiveness and little else—he doesn’t convey the same potential for violence and control that tempered the women’s fascination. Coppola doesn’t add anything to the characterization to make up for what’s lacking in Farrell’s screen presence. This allows the women’s desire to take center stage (and Coppola, to her credit, conveys that desire powerfully), but it makes the central character seem a bit like a cipher.
In the end, Coppola’s Beguiled is only a superficial success. The atmospheres may carry the film, but they fail to compensate for the lack of psychological nuance. Coppola remains an effective creator of images—I hope that her next film contains more to support her imagery.