The Beguiled‘s Biggest Star is Sofia Coppola
BY: OLIVIA MORREALE
Sofia Coppola’s latest film, The Beguiled, is nothing short of a masterpiece. It combines Coppola’s signature dreamlike aesthetic, influenced by photographers and artists such as Helmut Newton and Lee Friedlander, with a terrifying Nicole Kidman as headmistress Martha Farnsworth and an almost entirely female cast in a tasteful piece set during the Civil War. Coppola, who won Best Director at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is only the second woman to ever win the award; the film’s exploration of the female dynamic and the strength of women is incredibly fitting. The story is based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan and revolves around the arrival of a wounded union mercenary (Colin Farrell) at an all—girls boarding school in Virginia; trapped in their house during the war with nothing to do except conjugate French verbs, the girls welcome soldier John McBurney enthusiastically by visiting his room constantly and making out with him while he is sleeping (Elle Fanning). As the plot progresses, tensions rise, things get steamy, and people start beguiling each other all over the place.
Under Coppola’s nuanced direction, all of the women in the house seem to behave and function as a singular unit, which enhances the shock factor when individual personalities begin to emerge. The recurring candlelit prayer and dinner scenes establish the routines of the women as a community; at the first dinner scene after Colin Farrell hobbles onto the property, a stern Nicole Kidman stares down her nose from the head of the table of girls to ask “what we all think.” The dynamic among the women is rife with female energy, and no eye roll or twitch of the mouth goes unnoticed.
Throughout John McBurney’s stay at the house, he repeatedly asks whether Martha and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) have husbands in the war, and then goes on to woo Edwina with some questionably written dialogue. Although obviously exaggerated to highlight the true thirst of all the single ladies out there who have ever been isolated in large plantation houses during wartime, it seems like a stretch for John to declare his burning love for her the second time they are ever alone together. However, dialogue aside, McBurney’s sleazy charm and Edwina’s slow-burning desire are both incredibly executed by Farrell and Dunst throughout the film.
The film stands out in large part because of the hazy mist that floats through every scene, whether day or night. Creepy candles are definitely a big thing, and all of the characters seem to exude a yellow glow in the foggy lighting. Most notable were the glowing forest scenes, which presented a soft and eerie view of nature; in one of the last shots of the film, the sunset pulses gently through the trees as if asking a question. The score, composed by Phoenix, also contributes immensely to this haunted feel. Inspired by Monteverdi’s Magnificat, the glowing strings and the sound effects of the film create tension and evokes the loneliness and emotional desperation present throughout the entire story with muted cannons and soft whistling.
The looming plantation house itself also acts as a character in Coppola’s misty wide shots, threatening with its huge white columns to chew up and spit out anyone who enters. Throughout the film, the women take turns standing on the second floor balcony and looking through a telescope at the outside world; the shot is always from the same angle, slightly below, and the house’s columns give off an ivory tower vibe that contributes to the sense of isolation.
The Beguiled is in theaters now.
At the LA Film Festival’s June 15th screening of The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola spoke about her inspiration, her creative process, and the female focus of the film in a graceful and humbling interview—here are some of our favorite answers from the other night:
How did this movie come about?
My friend Anne Ross, who is a production designer who did this film and who I’ve known for years—I never knew about The Beguiled, and she said “I saw this Don Siegel movie, you need to see it, I think you need to make a new version of it.” And I thought, I would never make a remake of someone else’s movie, but I watched it and it stayed in my mind, and I kept thinking about how weird it was and how I could see how I would do it, which would be very different from that. So I found the book that was out of print, and it was written all from the female characters’ point of view, and I thought it would be interesting to see the story from their point of view in this house of these women all together and this stranger comes in and how it affects them. So I really just chose to focus on telling the story through them. And the South is very exotic to me, and the whole Southern Gothic genre, and that genre was something I never did, so I wanted to figure out how to do something that was much more plot—driven, and much more dialogue, and how to do that in my own style.
When did you see Don Siegel’s version?
It was probably about five years ago—it was after I did The Bling Ring. I knew after I did that movie that I wanted to do something beautiful, because that movie was in such a tacky, ugly world, and I wanted to cleanse myself, so that was my starting point. It’s so depressing shooting in those kitchens in Calabasas, and it was really important for me to get to shoot in Louisiana with those oak trees with the Spanish moss in one of those plantation houses. That whole world is so exotic to me and so different from how I grew up, and the idea of Southern ladies and all the sexual repression and the heat of the South was really interesting.
In terms of casting, did you write for these actors? I know you wanted to work with Nicole Kidman at some point, and obviously you have a relationship with Kirsten.
When I first thought about how to do the movie, I thought, I’ll get Kirsten to be the teacher, and Elle Fanning I’ve worked with since she was eleven and now she’s old enough to play the oldest student. And I always loved Nicole Kidman. I met her in passing, and when I was going to work for a moment on The Little Mermaid I wanted her to be the sea witch, like a diva sea witch. I always loved her, especially in To Die For—she’s so good when she’s twisted, so I thought of her when I was writing the part, and it helped to write the part to imagine them. And then I was so excited when she agreed to do it and to see her on set exactly how I imagined. But then she brought so much more to it, and she made the character really human and emotional. All of the actresses brought so much more to it than I could have imagined. And then I met Colin Farrell, and he was so charming and charismatic. In the book the character was an Irish immigrant, so him speaking in his real accent I thought brought more to it.
There also seem to be a lot of things you chose to challenge yourself on with this movie, moving away from some things you usually do in your films. Could you talk about that?
I wanted this movie to be more naturalistic and closer to the period. When I did Marie Antoinette, I tried everything to not do a dusty period piece, and it was teenage and romantic. But this I wanted to feel naturalistic, that you could believe it was in that time. And I wanted it to be more stark and a more minimal soundtrack, so it was focused on their heightening emotions and building tension and suspense.
I loved having the cannons and the cicadas fill the atmosphere, and I hope it’s tense because music usually releases tension, and you can hide behind things, but this is so stark that it hopefully keeps you on edge.
Did you get a chance to rehearse with the actors at all to get a sense of how these power dynamics would play?
The week before shooting we had all the women together. We kept Colin foreign (laughs). I wanted him to be separate but I wanted them to feel like they had some familiarity so they were all living together and they felt like they were a group and sort of started to find their dynamics. We did improvs in the house and they made meals together, and we had a sewing teacher and a dance teacher and an etiquette teacher, just to get in the mindset of how women lived in that time. We had a Civil War reenactor teach them how to do the bandages just to get them together so they would feel like a group. And luckily the younger girls all became friends and hung out together, and I feel like there’s a sense that they’re a unit.
The book and the Siegel movie both deal with slavery, but you made a conscious decision not to do that. Could you talk about that?
In the book there was a slave character and also the Don Siegel character, and it was treated a very stereotypical way that didn’t seem respectful, and it was too big of a subject to just brush over lightly so I decided not to have that character at all. And also it contributes to the idea that they’re really isolated and abandoned.
What really struck me too was that first scene where the little girl Amy meets him in the forest. That was a lot of information to get across—how was writing that scene?
When I originally wrote the scene it was too long, so I kept paring it back so we got what we needed. And in the Don Siegel version and in the book, he’s more seductive with her and creepy, and I like that he’s more of a big brother to her. He knows how to relate to each one in a way that satisfies their needs.
Some of your films have an autobiographical element—does the fact that he knows how to talk to each person come from your upbringing at all, moving school to school when you were younger?
I had a revelation this morning that because I relocated with my dad, I was always the new kid at school and kind of an army brat, so I had to very quickly figure out the situation and the hierarchy and how to fit in. So I guess I probably learned how to read the codes of the tribe and how to assimilate, so that’s probably why I’m so interested in that. So much of this is about women and how they communicate in a nonverbal way, with a glance or the tone, how that communicates so much, which I think that’s pretty unique to women, I think men are more overt with that stuff.