IT’S A SOUTHERN Gothic drama (brilliantly directed fourty years ago by Don Siegel with Clint Eastwood in the lead) that holds great promise: set in the Deep South during the American civil war, a wounded Yankee soldier has been separated from his platoon and is discovered, barely alive, by a young girl. She’s a pupil of a genteel Ladies’ boarding school, ensconced somewhere in the woods of rural Mississippi. And so, having taken pity on him, into this oasis of starched, vestal purity, comes this predatory man… a Northerner in a Confederate world; a wolf among sheep.
His recumbent, half naked sexuality and his aura of danger and the forbidden, lights the spark of desire in the breasts of his tightly laced, repressed rescuers. These souls of girlish purity long for the taint of his corruption; and become beguiled by his rakish ways. Until jealousy, armed with an adze of amputation has its way with him.
It would seem though from this anemic, insipid interpretation that director Sofia Coppola (“Marie Antoinette”) is having none of that. None of the raw, untamable passions of writer Thomas Cullinan’s novel. None of the sly seductions as Corporal McBurney (a dull as dishwater Colin Farrell, who seems to have grown out of his youthful bad boy charisma) samples the morsels of innocence. The central theme of “passion constrained” has been neutered of its sexuality and reframed as a carefully, meticulously storyboarded, bloodless lecture on deception and empowerment.
As the school’s headmistress, Miss Farnsworth, Coppola laces up the icy sexiness of Nicole Kidman so tightly that all we’re left with is the ice. There is no chemistry between her and Farrell. Nor for that matter is there much chemistry between Farrell and any of the other ‘objects of desire’ in Miss Farnsworth’s seminary (Kristen Dunst and Elle Fanning). It’s as though each of them were shot separately against blue screen and edited together in the final mix, the way they edit the voices in animated movies.
It is interesting to compare the female’s (Coppola’s) take on the story with the male’s (Siegel’s.) For Siegel, the Corporal’s symbolic emasculation and fatal comeuppance (that look of shock on Clint Eastwood’s face as he realizes the truth) was one of shuddering horror. For Coppola, it is one of moral triumph.
They’re both valid interpretations. But Siegel’s “horror” bristled with emotion; Coppola’s moral triumph fails to get the heart beating. That said, kudos to Ms. Coppola: many of the crew (production designer, editor, composers etc are women). And that’s an all too rare thing.
THE BEGUILED. Dir: Sofia Coppola. With Nicole Kidman, Kristen Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell. Screenplay: Sofia Coppola (adapting Albert Maltz’ screenplay from the book by Thomas Cullinan). Cinematographer: Phillippe Le Sourd (“Seven Pounds”). Production Designer: Anne Ross (“Going in Style”)