Thursday, July 6, 2017

In Theaters: THE BEGUILED (2017)

(US - 2017)

Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Cast: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning, Oona Laurence, Angourie Rice, Addison Riecke, Emma Howard. (R, 93 mins)

Based on Thomas P. Cullinan's 1966 Civil War-set novel A Painted DevilTHE BEGUILED was previously made into a film in 1971 by director Don Siegel. A departure at the time for star Clint Eastwood, who would have DIRTY HARRY in theaters later that year, THE BEGUILED was a badly marketed box-office flop though its reputation has improved significantly over time. It's especially interesting in hindsight when viewing it as part of the entire Eastwood canon, as it's a fascinating look at a masculine, archetypal Eastwood character having the tables turned on him by a boarding school full of women he's manipulated and betrayed (though it also shares a common theme with the later and far more sordid and sleazy TIGHTROPE, where once again Eastwood is a character surrounded by women--in that case, prostitutes and other sex workers--throwing themselves at him and he's never once shown paying). Sofia Coppola's remake, also called THE BEGUILED, approaches the story more from the POV of the women, though it hasn't been without controversy: a slave character named Hallie (played by Mae Mercer in the 1971 film) has been dropped, her absence explained in an early bit of a dialogue where someone says "The slaves all left." In addition, the character of Edwina, played by Kirsten Dunst, was biracial in the novel, but it's never mentioned here, nor was "whitewashing" brought up in 1971 when Elizabeth Hartman played the same role, but perhaps critics and film enthusiasts had more pressing issues to bitch about in 1971. Neither the novel nor the 1971 film had any big salient points to make regarding race or slavery, because it's not what the story is about. Coppola explained her reasoning being that girls and young women tend to be drawn to her films (THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, THE BLING RING), and she didn't want a black female to be portrayed in any negative way that distracted from the story.

The central premise remains the same: in 1864 Virginia, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union deserter, is found injured in the woods surrounding a sparsely-attended girls school. Young Amy (Oona Laurence of SOUTHPAW) is out picking mushrooms and helps him back to the school grounds, where he's taken in and his leg wound tended to by headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Agreeing to give him time to recover before turning him over to Confederate soldiers, Miss Martha keeps McBurney locked in the music room and informs the others--teacher Edwina (Dunst), rebellious teen Alicia (Elle Fanning), and younger girls Jane (Angourie Rice of THE NICE GUYS), Marie (Addison Riecke), and Marie (Emma Howard)--that McBurney's room is off limits. With his smoldering looks and his Irish brogue, the charming, Dublin-born McBurney slowly endears himself to the women and the girls, who begin showing off by dressing in their best clothes, breaking out the jewelry ("You haven't worn that pendant since the Christmas party!" two different people mention to Edwina), and constantly finding excuses to go into his room. McBurney revels in the attention and it isn't long before the choking atmosphere of repression simmers into overpowering sexual tension as McBurney declares his love for Edwina while seducing Alicia and very nearly getting the prim, proper Miss Martha into his bed. Hell hath no fury like several women scorned, and things go south very quickly for McBurney.

A Southern Gothic that was as close as Eastwood ever came to starring in a horror movie, the 1971 BEGUILED took its time to let things boil over and when they did, it got seriously dark and unsettling. Coppola doesn't replicate that feeling here because her version seems to rush through the story (the closing credits roll before the 90-minute mark). Farrell's McBurney tells Edwina he loves her much too quickly, and whether Coppola's breezing past the details or it's intentional to show how lonely and desperate Edwina is for an escape from her dreary existence, it doesn't work. This new interpretation shows more gore in the surgical scenes and blood splattered all over Miss Martha's white dress as she emphatically orders someone to "Go to the smokehouse, bring me the saw!" before performing an impromptu offscreen leg amputation--a horrifying moment in the original film--but it's tame in other respects. Gone is the subplot about Miss Martha's past incestuous relationship with her brother (which led to one of Eastwood's best lines in the 1971 version) as well as any sense of tension and suspense at all. The shocking scenes where Eastwood's McBurney kills Amy's beloved turtle, and when he wakes up to find one of his legs missing are both ineffectively handled here to the point of being bungled. The subsequent psychotic rampage by Farrell's McBurney threatens to turn Coppola's BEGUILED into a Civil War-set "Houseguest from Hell" thriller, while the climactic dinner sequence loses all of its momentum thanks to Coppola's bizarre decision to have Edwina decline a helping of mushrooms. Farrell, Kidman, and the supporting cast are fine, but Kidman isn't given nearly as meaty and complex a Miss Martha as Geraldine Page got to play in 1971, and the only real improvement Coppola makes is with her Kubrick-like use of natural lighting throughout. Shot by cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd (THE GRANDMASTER) in a 1.66 aspect ratio--unusual for today's movies--THE BEGUILED '17 looks great. There's a dreamlike haze to the proceedings--not surprising to anyone who's seen THE VIRGIN SUICIDES--and you can feel the sweltering humidity, and with the BARRY LYNDON-like natural lighting, whether it's sunlight during the day or candles providing scant illumination at night, accompanied by the constant background noise of war and cannon fire and the sight of smoke from battle that's too close to the school for comfort, you really do feel transported back to 1864. But elsewhere, this BEGUILED doesn't seem to show much purpose since Coppola seems to have gone out of her way to render it as dramatically inert as possible. It looks stunning, but what exactly was the point of remaking this?

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