If nothing else, Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s tempestuous 1971 backwoods thriller of the same name is a valuable reflection of how the much-mocked “remake” status can be an opportunity to confront and a possibility to fulfill if the film in question is not a sycophantic and slavish devotee to the original. Coppola’s new version of this story is no acolyte of Siegel’s, borrowing the plot and nothing of the mood, feel, style, or sensibility of the original. It’s still the story of a mostly-empty Civil War-era Southern girl’s school headed by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst) and the sexual emotions they stir when they take in wounded Union Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) and help him back to health. (The other primary occupants of the school are a handful of youths, the most important in this version being Alicia (Elle Fanning), Jane (Angourie Rice), and Amy (Oona Laurence)). But if Siegel’s film was a moonshine-fueled folk tale, Coppola’s is a dollhouse fairy tale. While it doesn’t necessarily better the original, it does not copy it.
Diametric opposites, Siegel’s and Coppola’s variations both tackle the themes of feminine hysteria – a stereotype constructed by men – and masculine brutishness masquerading as macho sensuality. But while Siegel’s hot-headed thriller flares with mercurial passion and volcanic filmmaking elan, Coppola’s frigid ice-block of tableau suspended in time emphasizes stasis in emotional and visceral terms. Siegel’s powder-keg of a film relishes the sun-spoiled Southern humidity, brewing a maniacal melting-pot of barely sublimated desires and sexual urges waylaid by social dictums until they kindle into half-crazed private madnesses that erupt full-force. Coppola’s film is a paragon of brimming dread as well, but it is much less heated, more atrophied and cut to suggest emotions as dulled echoes of faint tremors in a cramped, wilting location gone the way of Antebellum gentility.
On balance, both are valuable sensoriums, but Coppola’s version is more skilled at implying every image in front of us is a mirage, every emotion a ruse, something brittle that might slip away from us if we dare get too close. Her version is about absence, what is left unsaid, what exists below the sensory threshold and the perceptual barrier that she refuses to draw our attention to. By way of comparison, Siegel’s film is all about sensory presence, bringing the unstated to the forefront by dropping us in a sticky muck of paranoia, drenching us in sweltering sweat, and poising us to expect inclement weather.
The most trenchant encapsulation of their differences, I think, is that Siegel’s terminally off-tempo film is a hot dip in the murderously unchecked reality of a Southern finishing school in total disrepair amidst the Civil War. His film’s school is a hole in the wall mimicking the fallen and degraded Confederacy that, through flashback, is revealed to be even more oppressive and horrid than the war that was necessary to fell its evil ways. Coppola’s film is something else altogether: a carbon-copy of the emotional architecture of Antebellum society, an intrepid wanderer into the finishing school’s stone-cut mental fictions of propriety, diction, and Southern elegance. Coppola’s film is less invested in plumbing the wild mane of incongruous posturing and embattled desires boiling beneath this barely-held-together façade than in torturing us with the façade. It exhumes an Antebellum corpse and places it in a coffin next to a fleet of other preternaturally taxidermied cadavers, implying that the Antebellum mindset is fundamentally oppressive to a full flowering of human life, compassion, and emotion, to living communally with empathy for others.
With Philippe Le Sourd’s astonishingly evocative cinematography as the film’s skeletal structure (rather than any narrative serving as the foundation), Coppola recreates an Antebellum facsimile of beauty and treats it as an alienating spent force, a dismal and hollow superficial prettiness that is in fact slavishly lethargic and incapable of allowing for the kind of torrential emotions that Siegel let loose. Coppola’s film is a corset, a too-tight choker necklace, an intentionally undigestible mood piece meant to keep us from partaking in any cathartic emotional release in order to reveal how strangulating the mental fictions of the South were. Coppola’s film-world is too suffocatingly proper to let in the explosive energy of Siegel’s film, and it implies a way of life that is no less suffocating.
One area in which Coppola’s vision is distinctly inferior is in its relative myopia on issues outside of Coppola’s wheel-house of white women. One of the fascinating rough edges of the original Don Siegel film, a slave servant named Hallie (played with spiritual sangfroid and a knowing gaze by Mae Mercer) has been scrubbed clean from the film. This is perhaps unavoidable in Coppola’s mental construction: her license not to fracture the Confederate ideology but to imprison us in it doesn’t allow for any overt loose ends, such as, of course, an empowered black woman. But the loss is an unfortunate casualty of Coppola’s typically astringent focus on white women and the crippling ennui of ostensibly well-off and well-to-do totems to good breeding (such as herself). Her auto-critical selfishness as a filmmaker (which can veer into fashionable and cheap self-criticism) preludes her from allowing in the kind of energy an alternate perspective might introduce. She’d rather stick to problematizing her way of life from her own viewpoint than looking to her periphery for other ways of living in the world. Such a periphery energy was precisely the point of Hallie’s persona in the original film. Not easily wooed by his white male charms, she was the first to truly understand the male soldier (played by Clint Eastwood in that film) and his power gambits – his desire to control the women – masqueraded by sexuality and compassion.
Hallie was a rogue element, in other words, and Coppola’s films are notoriously un-hospitable to rogue elements. That she is remaking another director’s film does not, perhaps contrary to expectation, alter her style, for Siegel’s sake or for anyone’s. The Beguiled is definitively of a cohort that includes Lost in Translation, The Virgin Suicides, The Bling Ring, and Coppola’s other films. It is a product of the tyrannically iron-fisted Coppola Finishing School for Somnambulist Films that Deal with the Lifestyle of Society’s Elite (whether it be modern day, France in the 1700s, or Virginia in the 1800s).
It is thus that criticisms of the film – that it merely reifies Coppola’s hermetic interest in wealthy women to the expense of every one else – are undeniably correct and possibly missing the point. Siegel’s film assaults the Antebellum lifestyle from the outside with the humidity and ferocity of a messy lived world, a chaos that stifling Antebellum propriety – and the gentility that disguises and legitimizes slavery – refuses to acknowledge. But Coppola’s film violates Antebellum diction from the inside, with its own logic, immanently. The film does infect the repressive aura of the Antebellum mindscape not only with violating masculinity – the true brutality of men – and the dawning tide of the Union, both of which the Antebellum school is predicated on costuming. But Coppola also sabotages the school, and the Confederacy, from within as well as without, not only suggesting that these women struggle with the presence of outsider elements, but that their own insular worldview is a stubborn fairy tale hostile but inherently permeable to others.
Even the throwaway line about all the slaves being away, read in the film’s own idiom, suggests a self-conscious awareness on Coppola’s part that its tale is simpler without the presence of race, and that it must eliminate complications but cannot do so without catching particles of its own omissions, whispers of the ghosts that haunt it in the negative. These omissions ossify the lives of these women though, as any reading of the film’s visual texture reveals immediately: the finale, the camera slowly crawling toward the gate that protects the girls as they stand in still far away, as if mannequins in a dollhouse, suggests a wandering mind wishing to investigate their bodies and being withheld from what amounts to their mental prison. If the film is partially locked into their worldview, it also captures that view’s impermanence. The parade of glances, grunts, pangs of desire, and the dawning awareness of their own hunger may seem depoliticized, but Coppola understands that their own belief in their essential superiority as aristocratic good women is part and parcel with their corrupted, crumbling Southern worldview, the very belief which, when combined with race, led to their belief that they had earned the right to own people. The final shot of the film, the women stagnant, locked into a penitentiary of their own worldview, lets us know that the world will move on, but they never can. Cloistering themselves in their idealized world cannot preclude their now-embryonic understandings that the world is far bigger, and far more unprotected from conflict and disagreement, than they know. The story does not conclude so much as freeze, or better yet, dissolve.
Which means you know what to expect going in, and The Beguiled certainly delivers. Coppola’s film is all un-actualizing potential energy, a study in delayed momentum and self-imprisonment in ideology. It is absolutely a fine version of itself, but do not expect the change of location and time to be more than a costume change for Coppola. Do I like the film? Absolutely, but I cotton to Coppola’s wave-lengths, and The Beguiled is a litmus test for your appreciation for this most iconoclastic and particular of filmmakers. And, for my money, it is (along with Okja, The Bad Batch, A Ghost Story, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, War for the Planet of the Apes, Dunkirk and others) another peg in a most abnormal and idiosyncratic of film summers. You won’t adore all of these films (I for one can’t fathom the adoration for either Wonder Woman or the new Spider-Man), but it is an exciting time to be a cinephile, if nothing else.