Movie Review: ‘THE BEGUILED’s delicate touch highlights feminine desire

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

THE BEGUILED
Rated R, 93 minutes
Director: Sofia Coppola
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell

Since Sofia’s Coppola’s first film, THE VIRGIN SUICIDES, was released in 1999, her pedigree as a filmmaker has only gotten stronger, and this extends further than her famous last name. There is artistry that runs in her veins and each of her films supplies a quiet yet vexing tone that more often than not does not work for me; however, there’s something there that calls to me with each and every project she captains.

Her first film since 2013’s misguided critique on decadence in the 21st century, THE BLING RING, we’ve seen Coppola challenge herself yet again with the retelling of the gothic drama THE BEGUILED.

The original 1971 title was a feverish film by Don Siegel (DIRTY HARRY). It featured Clint Eastwood in an against type role as emasculated Northern Civil War solider John McBurney. Trapped by injury in an all women’s finishing school in the deep South, it’s clear the women haven’t seen a man in years, nor one as dapper as Eastwood — or, in the case of Coppola’s film, Colin Farrell.

Siegel’s film takes a near horrific and certainly disturbing approach to the story, which encapsulated how men truly fear femininity. At first, McBurney is titillated by the house filled with, let’s just say, “anxious” women. He then develops a paranoia of his own design that’s fraught with desire and fear, which consumes the school as the Civil War wages on beyond its gates.

But back to Coppola’s work, this is her best film to date. It compels the viewer to create their own moments of tension rather it be sexualized, or fear-based. She has assembled one of the best casts of 2017, including Nicole Kidman as Martha, the distant, yet caring lady of the estate; Kirsten Dunst as Edwina, the beautifully plain teacher whose been sequestered to the property the last seven years; and Elle Fanning, who embodies Alicia, a young women who is just discovering her budding sexuality. Not to mention Farrell who is put on display as a buffet of man candy.

The cast of Sofia Coppola‘s ‘THE BEGUILED.’ Courtesy of Focus Features.

What I loved about Coppola’s version of THE BEGUILED is that she understates and understands the emotions these women are feeling. While Siegel’s picture focused on Eastwood’s descent into madness, Coppola provides the feminine perspective. Far too many times on camera, and in real life, women are subtly and not-so subtly informed by popular culture to suppress their sexuality, and this film is a direct comment on that notion.

Coppola and director of photography Philippe Le Sourd (THE GRANDMASTER) never make overt decisions to heighten the tension or malign the film’s inherent sexuality, each individual is given a chance to make real human decisions that make sense without ever going full camp. This decision tonally was at first surprising, but delight was soon to be followed. Filmed in New Orleans, the Southern Gothic tale is framed in a hazy dew of heat, humidity and corsets that show the sheer torture of day-to-day plantation life.

One could expect a big performance from somebody in the cast, but Coppola, Kidman, Fanning, Farrell and Dunst all reel it in and create quiet pockets that never feel fully suspenseful, which is, at times, disappointing but daring. The best aspects of this remake are the small touches of detail and the subversion of expectations.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge fan of Coppola’s films.  No matter how hard I’ve tried, her delicate approach hasn’t grabbed me until now. THE BEGUILED isn’t a home run of a film, but an exercise in filmmaking that will hopefully stimulate like minds to provide their characters with human emotions that are relatable with just a small sense of heightened reality. Cloaked in the guise of privilege, THE BEGUILED is a film that practices restraint, denying yourself the fairytale you think you’re living.

Grade: B+

THE BEGUILED is now playing in some cities, but expands on Friday (6/30).