Shut Up and Eat Your Mushrooms

Movie Review – The Beguiled (2017)
Directed by Sophia Coppola

Starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning

Movie Review – The Beguiled (1971)
Directed by Don Siegel
Starring Clint Eastwood, Geraldine Page, Elizabeth Hartman, and Mae Mercer

You probably won’t find Don Siegel’s name on any lists of the world’s greatest directors. Yet for over four decades, he was a highly respected filmmaker with a solid reputation as an able workman who was adaptable to a variety of projects. Known primarily as a director of action films (Dirty Harry), and westerns, (Coogan’s Bluff and John Wayne’s final film, the bittersweet The Shootist), his most famous movie was arguably the McCarthy era sci-fi classic The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But his most interesting film might be The Beguiled, a bizarre and steamy civil war era curio about an injured Union soldier who stumbles upon an all-girls school in Confederate territory.

That picture’s frank tale of sexual manipulation as well as its use of cinematic artifice were unusual for Siegel and a perfect fit for the honest adult drama that dominated American cinema at the time. The film tanked at the box office, due largely to the studio’s inability to devise a proper marketing strategy for a Southern Gothic melodrama to fans of its star, Clint Eastwood, an actor known for his macho western and action films. But in the years since, it’s achieved “near classic” status, admired by a few, but unknown to many. Its major weaknesses included a tendency to be too literal, a weak lead performance by Eastwood and an intrusive score by shlockmeister Lalo Schifrin.

In her remake of that film, writer/director Sophia Coppola delivers virtually the same story. In the war-torn Confederate South, a young student from an all-girl’s school wanders outside the grounds to pick mushrooms. There she stumbles upon that Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney, now portrayed by Colin Farrell. His leg has suffered a serious injury, so she helps him into the school grounds, delivering him to the school’s matron, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman). Out of “Christian compassion,” the decision is made to bring the enemy soldier into the house and nurse him to health before turning him in to the Confederate army, lest he die on the route to prison. Once inside the house, he finds himself surrounded by females of varying ages, all of whom seem to have a special interest in him. The children fawn after him in delight, while the adults and older girls throw themselves at the Corporal like the maidens from Monty Python’s Castle Anthrax (sans offers for oral sex). McBurney happily encourages the attention of each. But when the horny soldier chooses one of the women over the others, it sparks a tragedy that sends the story on a dark trajectory.

Coppola, the writer, offer us a streamlined version of the story. The running time comes in at a brisk 94 minutes, 11 minutes shorter than the original. And the battle of the sexes that was the core of the earlier film is now more focused and unfettered by the extraneous. All other distractions have been removed. Gone is the black slave character, a controversial decision in this contentious age, but one that I support as an artistic choice. Symbolically, the character’s presence brings in a whole slew of racial issues. These issues are valid and vital, but they distract from the themes that Coppola wants to explore. Gone too is an unnecessary and suspenseless scene Involving the search of the compound by Confederate soldiers.

Coppola corrects the original film’s mistake of revealing unsettling information about the Captain’s character in flashbacks. The incident is never shown or alluded to, rendering Farrell’s McBurney more ambiguous and thus more sympathetic than Eastwood’s. In Coppola’s script, we’re now forced to search for subtext in his words and in his face, allowing the character more dimensions and enabling Farrell to show off his considerable range as an actor.

What Coppola does explore is the story’s tension between men and women controlled by their own sexual desires and those of the opposite sex. The story’s view of both sexes seems particularly cynical. Martha justifies her questionable acts initially with excuses about compassion. But when things become more serious, her decisions become increasingly more harsh and callous. McBurney is player, a sweet-talking flatterer, relishing in all the attention but cruelly inconsiderate of the women’s emotional states. When the women finally turn against him, it’s full throttle. Men are lying bastards who only care about getting laid, the film seems to imply. And hell, perhaps, hath no fury like a naïve women scorned. Or does it?

This is provocative stuff, particularly in the #MeToo era, and Coppola, the director, makes it all sing. She’s toned down the mood, heightened the suspense and intensified the brief scenes of gore for increased dramatic effect. Visually, her film is darker. While both films are sumptuously photographed, the earlier ones’s attempts at approximating candlelight look gorgeous, but artificial. But Coppola’s and cinematographer Pillippe Le Sourd’s candlelit scenes are some of the most realistic since Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. The rest of the film, excluding the lovely outdoor shots of sunlight shimmering through Spanish moss covered trees, is photographed in low key pastel tones. And unlike the original, virtually all the action takes place within the school compound, and mostly indoors, which adds to the closed-in atmosphere. All of these things give the film a claustrophobic feel, emphasizing McBurney’s feelings of being held prisoner, as well as the isolation of the women holed up in their compound while war erupts around them.

Coppola has mercifully replaced Schifrin’s musical vomit with a quieter approach. (Say goodbye to the “piano pound”, the banal curse of so many 70’s detective shows and action films.) Much of the new film’s first half is accompanied, not by music, but by the heartbeat-like sound of shells exploding in the background. Unlike Seigel’s version, you never forget there’s supposed to be a war going on outside the school’s iron gates. It perfectly foreshadows the darker events to come. When the score does come in, it’s laid back and effective without drawing attention to itself.

If I had to choose between the two films, I would probably pick Coppola’s film. It’s a cleaner, better told story, the direction more polished and dramatic, the suspense more intense. But in its efficiency, it sacrifices some of the color of the original. The slave character in the Siegel film, portrayed by the late, great Mae Mercer, while a distraction from the main story, is one of its most interesting. Cynical and funny, she’s no Mammy stereotype, grateful to be owned by such a kind owner, (see Gone with the Wind.). Her scenes with Eastwood are some of the best in the film. And there’s a fantastic montage sequence that, while incongruous with the rest of the film, is brilliant on its own as cinematic artifice.

But there’s more pith to the new film. Though it’s not quite the masterpiece some claim, there’s no denying Coppola’s gifts as a writer and especially as a director. It’s easy to see why she won the Prix de la Mise en scéne at Cannes, the festival’s Best Director award. Her movie is a smartly crafted, thought provoking, suspenseful good time.

Rating (2017): 83/100
Rating (1971): 77/100