by ALEX CARNEVALE
dir. Sofia Coppola
An elegy for the Confederacy may not be the most politically appropriate theme these days, but Sofia Coppola is unafraid. She is willing to turn anything, even the War Between the States, into a fulcrum of boredom. The Beguiled, a remake she conceived at the behest of her close friend in tone deafness, Quentin Tarantino, turns the story of a runaway Union soldier into a two hour admiration of Colin Farrell’s body by a group of eight women with ages ranging from 11 to 50. The resulting feature film feels like reading a novella; it is really over before it has even begun.
Speaking of Colin Farrell’s body, his legs are hairy but his torso is mostly hairless. He has clearly dieted down for this important role. Matted hair covers the lower part of his face, and his left leg contains shrapnel and a vertical cut of three or four inches. Ill or well, he is the central figure of The Beguiled. Despite being a movie with a bunch of women living together, where they might have friendships or conflicts, we find nothing of that here. I guess the reason is that they are literally beguiled by Farrell, even though he is a little old for them, speaks with an Irish accent, and is quick to anger.
Coppola’s trailer for The Beguiled was rather exciting, but after viewing the final product, you realize it is one of those trailers that disappointingly captures the entire movie. I don’t mean this in a metaphorical or casual manner, either: this piece of promotional material even includes the final scenes from the film. Probably Coppola was afraid no one would go see the movie if they thought it was about a bunch of women flirting with Colin Farrell; they had to have some darker intent for him, like ghosts or at least sustained violence.
The Beguiled moves at a breakneck pace through its non-plot. Nicole Kidman is a bit overly familiar as the head of this small girls’ school, and her lack of subtlety or verve indicates she does not have much to offer in this role. We never learn much about her, except that she is willing to completely give herself over to a man she barely knows. As her second in command, Kirsten Dunst continues to show how much she has grown as a performer over the past decade, and Coppola wisely gives her most of the action in the film.
Directing younger actresses is Ms. Coppola’s forte, and expanding the role of Oona Lawrence, who plays the young woman who finds Farrell dying below a tree, would have probably added a lot here. Instead we have to watch the ghastly spectre of Elle Fanning making out with an unconscious Farrell as he recovers in the house’s music room. Except for Dunst, none of these women possess any inner life, and that is the greatest disappointment of The Beguiled. Rather than develop these characters and their relationships, The Beguiled is more focused on establishing a definite mood, of a cocooned hideaway impervious to happening of any kind.
Between every scene, Coppola cannot help but show the overgrown property of the girls’ school in the gloaming. Without music for the vast majority of the film, the sounds of crickets and birds make up the overwhelming portion of the soundtrack. This is an effective way of building tension; unfortunately it never really leads to much. Farrell’s soldier recovers and begins gardening; as soon as he is on two feet he is on the verge of convincing the women to stay when he is caught in Elle Fanning’s room. Two scenes of violence, accidental and then intentional, follow.
The metaphor for the fate of the American south is sure laid on thick here. It is a Northerner’s understanding of that place. Even these women, who are ostensibly future wives of the Confederacy, all speak with their own accents. Coppola understands that the audience for her films has no desire to witness versimilitude. This is the South in name only. Stripped of any substance or agency, the women of The Beguiled move to and fro as if in a dollhouse. It is all too obvious none of this is real.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.