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July 02, 2017

THE BEGUILED

The-Beguiled-PosterSofia Coppola’s thoughtful reworking of Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil” is a provocative study in feminine mores of the Civil War era. That catty jealousies between women, and pubescent girls, vying for the romantic attention of a fetishized male figure doesn’t mesh with the current overstated trend discounting anything that doesn’t meet the Bechdel test is beside the point.

Jessica Chastain took it upon herself to backhandedly insult Coppola’s film during the closing press conference at Cannes last month, but the millionaire actress doth protest too much. I dare say that none of Chastain’s performances in films such as “The Help” or “The Martian” compare favorably against those of Nicole Kidman or Kirsten Dunst in “The Beguiled.” Sour grapes.

Where Don Siegel’s 1971 film version (starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page) came off as a clunky sexploitation popcorn movie, with some slave exploitation thrown in for good measure, Coppola’s artfully nuanced picture delights in seductive patience. Coppola lets the haunting wartime atmosphere of a rural girls’ boarding school in southern Virginia speak volumes. This is the doomed South after all. Miss Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies is a Southern mansion lacking in slave labor. Homespun music and bible readings fill the empty hours. Boredom abounds.

Thebeguiled.colesmithey.com
Coppola holds back her use of light to generate an unsettling sense of claustrophobic suspense so that when the narrative moves beyond the school’s candle-lit interior walls, the audience breathes a sigh of relief. Nature brims with dangers real and unseen.

While not a minimalist film, “The Beguiled” turns on subtle twists of emotion and things left unspoken.    

Colesmithey.com

The story ignites from the discovery of Colin Farrell’s wounded corporal John McBurney, a deserter whose dabbling in mercenary work has proved less profitable or satisfying than he imagined. The Dublin-born McBurney sports a politeness and polished sense of humor that he uses to protect his status as a less than welcome guest in a house kept under strict order by Nicole Kidman’s haughty Martha Farnsworth. McBurney senses that Miss Farnsworth is a rival not to be taken for granted. He adopts a submissive approach. She masks her seething romantic attraction with a stoic hostility that plays into the film’s tragic escalations.

Still, McBurney can’t resist falling for Kirsten Dunst’s hidden charms as Edwina, the school’s second in charge. He is a spy in a hot house of simmering lust. While it’s reasonable to suppose that Farrell’s character is nothing more than an opportunist attempting to seal safe passage into the next chapter of his life, he is also a man unable to defend against sexual overtures presented to him. Elle Fanning's bedtime kisses prove especially problematic. As for Colin Farrell’s understated performance; it rates as one of the most finely restrained portrayals by a male actor in recent memory, and matches beat for beat the fine work that Dunst and Kidman perform alongside an estimable ensemble that includes Elle Fanning and Angourie Rice.

Beguiled

“The Beguiled” is problematic inasmuch as it plays against clichés as much as it embraces the necessary lusts of its horny female characters. Finger-wagging feminists such as Jessica Chastain will dismiss the film as playing into Virginia Woolf’s 1926 complaint, which cartoonist Alison Bechdel reframed in 1985 with the help of her friend Liz Wallace; call it the Bechdel-Wallace test.

For the record, the test simply states that a given work of fiction must “have at least two women in it who talk to each other about something other than a man.” Shocking, I know. I suppose Upper East Side ladies who chat primarliy about shopping would make for better, or more politically correct, entertainment fare by such a standard. Absurd, I know.

If that narrative shorthand denies Sofia Coppola’s film, then I suppose I don’t care. “The Beguiled” is a beautifully executed picture full of erotic tension amid historic context, made by one of America’s more gifted female filmmakers.

Some male audiences will likely find the film emasculating if not threatening. So what. 

Colin-farrell-the-beguiled

I think it’s a mug’s game for any critic to judge a film or any work of art for that matter on a premise as flimsy as what characters discuss. American media still chooses to cover Donald Trump when they should ignore him with a vengeance.

I wish cats didn’t always sharpen their claws on furniture, but they do. If they scratch you, it can leave a scar or get infected. I’m still always happy to see a cat in a movie, regardless of whether or not the film is any good. And I'm glad they have claws to sharpen it's part of what makes them cats.    

Rated R. 93 mins. (B+) (Four stars — out of five / no halves)


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