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The Beguiled: Not Shy About Violence

Sofia Coppola's film evolution from the "Virgin Suicides" to a dreamily-stylized Civil War drama.

Focus Features

Gore is a new element in the work of Sofia Coppola. There’s not too much of it in her new film The Beguiled, but it’s memorable: the mangled flesh and bone of Colin Farrell’s leg after he’s fallen down the stairs and broken it; the blood smeared on Nicole Kidman’s bright white nightgown as she prepares to amputate it below the knee. 

Kidman is Martha Farnsworth, headmistress of Farnsworth Seminary, a school for girls in the woods of Virginia, housed in her ancestral mansion, a gated zone deprived of men and slaves by the Civil War, which is raging somewhere beyond the forest, as we can tell from the drifting smoke and occasional cannon boom. Farrell is Corporal John McBurney, a wounded Union soldier that Amy (Oona Lawrence), one of Miss Martha’s students, has found under a tree while picking mushrooms and dragged home like a stray dog with a busted leg.

Before the gore, the sponge bath. The Beguiled, adapted from Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, is a dreamily stylized film. No scene is more dreamy than the one in which the corporal, confined to a daybed in the school’s music room, has his torso scrubbed by Miss Martha. The water pools on the crevices of his chest and belly and the camera closes in. What damage could this body do when restored to health? The scene is so crucial to the film that it required the omission of a character. In Don Siegel’s 1971 adaptation of the novel, the cleansing duties were handled by the slave Hallie (Mae Mercer), the one woman at the Farnsworth Seminary entirely immune to the surly magnetism of Clint Eastwood’s McBurney. Hallie’s absence also signals that Coppola’s film isn’t a work of realism, or particularly faithful to or interested in American history.

Siegel’s film belonged to Eastwood; Coppola’s belongs to Kidman. Where Eastwood was monstrous, Farrell is mopey. The predator has been softened into a mere cad, but that’s part of the plan. Siegel was making a thriller. Coppola’s film is a Southern gothic costume drama. She’s elided the saw-and-all amputation scene that was Siegel’s cringe-inducing centerpiece, as hard to watch as the gruesome bits in Lars von Trier’s Anti-Christ. Instead Coppola cuts from Kidman’s bloody nightgown to the women and girls of the Farnsworth Seminary burying the detached foot and shin in the yard. This is one of the few moments in the film where the tonal score, based on Monteverdi’s Magnificat, creeps in.

The lack of a slyly calculated pop soundtrack in The Beguiled might be the biggest departure Coppola makes from her earlier work. I think of her films in pairs with the last three films revising (and improving on) the first three. The Virgin Suicides (1999) was a melancholy confection but a conventional piece of work, heavily reliant on the first-person-plural voiceover narration (executed by Giovanni Ribisi) that distinguished Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel and with several sequences that could be confused for fan videos for the greatest hits of Heart. Working with another story of frustrated teens, Coppola delivered an altogether more satisfying romp in The Bling Ring (2013), which bestowed Dostoyevskian depth on a gang of creepy-crawling kleptomaniac L.A. kids dosed on Adderall in the morning and homeschooled on lessons from The Secret by day.

Kirsten Dunst plays Edwina, Martha’s repressed deputy schoolteacher.
Focus Features

Lost in Translation was a revelation in style when it appeared in 2003, but it hasn’t aged well. Scarlett Johansson, then still a teenager, has grown up into more interesting, less blank roles, and the post-Kingpin, non-slapstick-dependent, late-middle-aged Bill Murray persona has become a little too familiar over the years. The jokes about cultural difference, trite and offensive to some Japanese audiences, are also boring. The centerpiece scene of Murray’s Bob and Johansson’s Charlotte shot from above, lying chastely on the Tokyo Hyatt hotel bed, confiding in each other about their so-so marriages, was always pretty banal: “It gets a whole lot more complicated when you have kids,” Bob says, “It’s the most terrifying day of your life when the first one is born.” Charlotte replies, “Nobody ever tells you that.” Clearly Charlotte needs to get out more.

Somewhere (2010), another study of languor in a luxury hotel and Coppola’s only other original screenplay, is also her finest film. It fixes a lot that was off about Lost in Translation. Another actor on the wrong side of celebrity, Stephen Dorff’s Johnny Marco is captive to L.A.’s Chateau Marmont and his own disappointments. Dorff is more deadpan even than Murray and his character more thoroughly depressed, given to passing out on top of the women who throw themselves at him while they’re getting it on. Coppola’s intimate vision of L.A. is stranger than her smooth but clichéd view of Tokyo. In place of the tentative, awkward romance between Charlotte and Bob, there’s the achingly sweet father-daughter between Johnny and Chloe, played by the eleven-year-old Elle Fanning. When the pair jet to Milan for a publicity junket, the foreigner jokes land because the Italian-American writer-director is on home-away-from-home turf. Best of all, a lot of the music—like the Foo Fighters’ “My Hero,” blasted while twin pole dancers (Kristina and Karissa Shannon) perform for Johnny in his room—is corny and deployed with an acid wit.

The film that The Beguiled revises is Coppola’s previous costume drama, Marie Antoinette (2006). There was too much music in the earlier film, which posited what the last years of the Bourbons would’ve been like if they had iPods and a taste for British Punk and New Wave. In the title role, Kirsten Dunst was irresistible as usual, which made the biopic motions the film went through, adapted from Antonia Fraser’s biography, all the more perfunctory. Marie Antoinette is delicious but disposable, like the many cakes the camera lingers on. When the rabble show up with pitchforks and torches, the queen comes to the balcony and quiets them. If only. It’s hard not to suspect the daughter of the director of The Godfather felt a little defensive about dynasties. 

No longer. The Beguiled is not shy about violence. Nor is it shy about sex, and it’s the first time that Coppola has framed Dunst—who plays Edwina, Martha’s repressed deputy schoolteacher, and the one at the seminary who really falls for McBurney—as something other than a princess in a gilded cage, a dream version of femininity. Here Edwina is both the accidental avenger and the vulnerable, real human inside the dream. Reinventing Kirsten Dunst is Coppola’s most intriguing revision.