The Beguiled (2017)

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You vengeful bitches! I had high hopes for Sofia Coppola’s take on the Don Siegel Southern Gothic movie that made such a difference to our perception of Clint Eastwood way back when. Coppola has created such an interesting catalogue of films that are female-centred and immediately recognisable from their diffused palettes, lens flare, sense of mystery,soundtracks, alienation from family and the ultimate unknowability of teenaged girls. Colin Farrell plays Corporal John McBurney, the Irish soldier of fortune fighting for the North lying wounded in the woods near Martha Farnsworth’s boarding school for young ladies in deepest Louisiana when he is found by little girl Amy (Oona Laurence) on her daily mushroom-picking trip. She drags him back to the almost derelict building and the decision is made not to report him to the Confederates passing through the area despite the objections of staunch loyalist Jane (Angourie Rice, who was so great in The Nice Guys). There are only five students and the eldest is Alicia (Elle Fanning) and their teacher Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst) is the woman most obviously hot to trot – sad and clearly desperate for a man and a reason for escape. Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) tends to McBurney while he is unconscious and there are a lot of shots of water pooling in the cavities of his neck and abdomen. His objectification is writ large by the simple expedient of not having the camera include his face. Farnsworth admits to having had a man before the war when McBurney asks but as each of the girls enters his room to get a look at him and steal a kiss (a foxy Fanning) he realises he can play them off against each other. He learns to walk again and helps out, cutting wood and generally being the maintenance man. But all the while he has become the women’s fantasy. The problems really begin when each of them finds out what he is doing with the others. When Edwina invites him to her room after a particularly excruciating dinner and dance in this Gothic manse, she finds him having sex instead with Carol and takes terrible revenge …. And Farnsworth aims at keeping him there forever. There is something not quite right about the film. The control and the tone never really articulate the plot’s inherent collective madness, something that was so brutally effective in the earlier adaptation. The photography doesn’t come close to the beauty of Bruce Surtees’ work and that is surprising given Coppola’s customary attention to appearances (and the consequently unfortunate effect on the way Kidman appears). The relative containment of the story to the building doesn’t really work since so many of the shots are repetitive and one has the paradoxical desire to see more of the outdoors. Coppola has dropped some of the previous film’s elements – the black servant, the flashbacks to Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother – and this vacuum is not replaced with enough plot to sustain the story’s mordantly black tone. The performances are uniformly good and Dunst and Fanning are obviously back working again with Coppola. (And if you still haven’t watched Marie Antoinette go look at it now to watch Dunst give a complete performance as the child bride.) Farrell gives a good account of himself as a man who can’t believe his good luck even if it’s quite disconcerting to hear him speaking in an Irish accent. The young kids are very good in their roles and while Dunst’s part is not written especially well the sex scene with her buttons spilling over the floor is one of the best things in the film. Fanning is just a little too odd – but she has definitely grown up since Somewhere. Laurence is especially good as the little girl who stands up for McBurney right up until he hurts her little turtle Henry. The revenge is all too clearly telegraphed in a way that it wasn’t in the earlier film and that is the ultimate disappointment:  the staircase scene is thrown away.  There are some nice touches – the use of jewellery (Coppola loves fetishising sparkly objects) and costume and some Hitchcockian shots of the women’s hairstyles from behind. But it can’t make up for the lack of real tension. There is good use of music – that’s Mr Coppola’s band Phoenix reinterpreting Monteverdi’s Magnificat on the soundtrack and there’s apposite use of Stephen Foster’s song Virginia Belle.  Overall however this just doesn’t work the way you want it to do and despite its relatively short length (94 minutes) for a contemporary film it has its longeurs. Coppola adapted the original screenplay by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, a woman who was writing pseudonymously as ‘Grimes Grice’ which is the name mysteriously used on the film’s credits. Despite my reservations about this,  I find Coppola a fascinating – even beguiling! – director and I’ve reviewed Fiona Handyside’s new book about her in the latest issue of Offscreen which you can find here:  http://offscreen.com/view/sofia-coppola-a-cinema-of-girlhood.

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The Beguiled (1971)

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What an extraordinary generic blend this is:  part Western, part Gothic or Grand Guignol, and an emblematic role for Clint Eastwood who would turn aspects  of its perverse sexuality into a motif in Play Misty for Me and Tightrope.  He’s a Union soldier badly wounded in the Civil War, found by Amy (Pamelyn Ferdin) a little girl who attends a seminary nearby in very Southern Louisiana. Deciding eventually not to report him to the Confederate soldiers, headmistress Geraldine Page sets her sights on him – but so does teacher Elizabeth Hartman. And student Jo Ann Harris … Adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s novel A Painted Devil, this plumbs areas of psyched out femininity that no other films truly reach.  It becomes clear that Page indulged in an incestuous relationship with her late brother;  Hartman is a virgin;  and Harris is a fox – whom Eastwood naturally beds, to the others’ uncontrollable fury. The Gothic trope of the staircase looms and Hartman pushes him to the bottom of it – giving Page an excuse to lop off one of his legs and trap him there forever. When he accidentally kills Amy’s turtle everything comes to a head and any plans he might have are as dust. There’s nothing like women scorned, is there? Bruce Surtees’ dreamlike cinematography lends this twisted narrative an art house feel that is entirely different to any of Eastwood’s output to that time – and the studio had no idea how to market it. Blacklisted writer Albert Maltz did the original adaptation but he gave it a happy ending – so another draft was done by Irene Kamp. Both of them were credited pseudonymously. And the real rewrite by associate producer Claude Traverse went uncredited. Director Don Siegel worked with Eastwood to create a different phase of his iconicity following the spaghetti westerns that brought the actor global fame  – and this was the real start of crafting something mysterious and ineffable and even masochistic in his screen persona, alongside the action roles that kept the studios happy. No wonder Sofia Coppola wanted to remake it. I can’t wait to see what she does with it. This is great anyhow you choose. (And an opportunity to see the tragic Hartman). When this came out my aunt’s mate at boarding school snuck out to see it and she was caught by the nuns climbing back in a window very late at night. When she explained her uncontrollable weakness for Mr Eastwood they said they understood completely and she wasn’t punished. Now that’s some cool nuns. And how very fitting!

The Old Maid (1939)

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Edith Wharton. Zoe Akins. This Bette Davis outing had serious literary chops,with Wharton’s short story adapted first for Broadway by Akins and then Casey Robinson was appointed by Warners to bring it to the screen with the era’s most vital actress – and her longtime rival, Miriam Hopkins. This is the one where Bette has a little affair with Clem Spender (the splendid George Brent – sigh) who has returned after disappearing for two years to discover his fiancee, Bette’s cousin Miriam, is about to get married to a wealthy rival. He departs once again and dies in the Civil War. Cut to: six years later and Bette is running an orphanage for war foundlings … including her own secret illegitimate daughter, Tina, short for Clementine… nomenclature being what it is we know who Papa was. Bette’s about to get married to Miriam’s brother in law but she confesses to Miriam right before the ceremony who Tina’s father is … and jealous Miriam sabotages her wedding with a lie and then strong-arms Bette into giving up her daughter to be brought up with her cousins, themselves now fatherless following an accident. The daughter grows up to be the nasty, vicious Jane Bryan, who never discovers who this greying maiden aunt really is … Sob! The women are just fabulous and Bryan really stays in the mind:  it was her third time to act with Davis after Marked Woman and Kid Galahad and Warners had her marked for great things. But she abandoned acting and married a very wealthy man on New Year’s Eve 1939 and ended her career. She and her husband were fervent Republicans and got their good friend Ronald Reagan to run for President in 1980. Tony Gaudio’s camerawork is luminous and it’s directed by Edmund Goulding, who worked with Bryan the following year on We Are Not Alone; and with Davis a handful of times, including in the incredible Dark Victory the previous year which also co-starred Brent. I’ve written about Davis’ intriguing dualistic career for the Canadian journal Offscreen:  https://www.offscreen.com/view/double_life_part_1.