Film remakes can be tricky things, especially when the original is not an undisputed classic. I saw the original of The Beguiled over forty years ago. Starring Clint Eastwood and directed by Don Siegel, I enjoyed it but it was not a success. He played a wounded Yankee soldier in the Civil War who stumbles into a girl’s finishing school in the Deep South. I remembered it was fun to see Eastwood, the tall, iconic hero, being dominated by a houseful of jealous, sexually deprived Southern belles, and there was real suspense in seeing just how much “suffering” he would have to endure at their hands.
Sofia Coppola chose this story, which she adapted from the Thomas P. Cullinan novel that the original was based on. She has said she wanted to tell what amounts to the same story, but from a female perspective.
The outline of the story is pretty much the same, although Coppola omitted an incest flashback and the minor role of a female slave. Mostly, however, she changed stylistic elements and shifted the dramatic focus to the women.
It is 1864 in the Mississippi countryside. A young girl is picking mushrooms in the forest. She seems undisturbed by the distant roar of cannon; the war is just another fact of life. But she finds John McBurney, a Union corporal with a leg wound (Colin Farrell) lying against a tree. He implores her for help, and she helps him to walk to a nearby finishing school for girls, where she is a resident pupil. It is run by Martha (Nicole Kidman), who employs one teacher, Amanda (Kirsten Dunst), and has five girl students in residence. The school, a greek-columned mansion, was once part of a wealthy estate.
Martha decides to keep the Union soldier there, in secret, until he recovers, because he would die from his wounds if turned over to the Confederate army as a prisoner. Amanda openly supports this decision, as well as Alicia (Elle Fanning), the oldest of the students. The students are excited about the presence of the Yankee soldier, and press against the door to listen whenever Martha or Amanda are tending to him.
It doesn’t take long to see that the dramatic action will be about how the women will be competing for the corporal’s attention, and how he will try to use that to his advantage. Obviously, he’d like to drag out his recovery as long as possible. Instead of dying from bullets, a bayonet or starvation, he has three beautiful women and some adoring young girls for company, hot meals and a comfortable bed (with some very willing bedmates). And there’s nobody trying to kill him.
Well, not at first. The critical question becomes which of three eager females will he choose for his sexual favors. The last third of the film is set in motion when John makes the – disastrous – choice of visiting the bedroom of the youngest of them, failing to realize that she is the one who is least able to protect him from the wrath of the other two.
It doesn’t play out well for the soldier, in both versions. But, whatever stylistic changes Coppola made in the screenplay, the single most important change was that Eastwood isn’t in it. The tone of the 1971 version was totally different. Siegel emphasized the repressed sexual desires of the women; it wasn’t subtle, and they looked ready to strip for action at any moment. While Eastwood was eager to take advantage of this, he never became an outright rogue about it. Somehow he still came across as a pretty decent guy who was placed in a perilous situation. I think the Eastwood persona still came across. He had always represented a quiet, no-nonsense masculine strength. Audiences were thus expected to accept him as a victim of these women, and not an abuser. The trailer should give you some idea of this.
Coppola, on the other hand, had no use for this approach. To her, it was the women who were the victims of the soldier, not the other way round. Once it was clear to the corporal what these women wanted him for, he would play the game for all it was worth!
With his dark, honeyed brogue, Farrell comes on like a sexual predator, even while lying flat on his back. The frustrated women have no defense against his charms, and seem glad of it. Soon each of them is scheming to be alone with him. And, for about the first hour, there’s some enjoyment in this, if somewhat muted. But the tone changes considerably after Farrell’s fateful mistake. Kidman and Dunst take action, quite brutally, and leave him, in his own words, “less than a man”. He responds with a rage so uncontrollable that there is no other recourse. The women must reunite to destroy the invader.
Most of the film is almost genteel in treatment, like Merchant-Ivory at their softest. We get a lot of period fashion, hairstyle and interior design, delicately bathed in pastel photography by Phillipe Le Sourd. The music is Monteverdi, or an equally soothing derivative. And this doesn’t change appreciably even after melodrama takes over. The women suffer, shriek but eventually compose themselves enough, under Kidman’s icy command, to strategize their eventual victory.
The film ends on a note of grim irony, when Kidman notes Amanda’s expertise in stitching fabric. This was clever – in context – but nothing to smile about. Everybody looks glum, and I think the audience shares that feeling. Siegel, at least, realized the story benefitted from a raunchy, full-bodied sexuality. Some critics have called it “lurid”, with justification. But, for some reason, the Cannes jury gave Coppola the Best Director award for this, even though her work seems wan and remote.