“The Beguiled” |
and 8 Ways to Make
a Southern Gothic
By KARL R. De MESA
Sofia Coppola has made her directorial reputation out of creating visionary images that speak about redefining femininity and about the female in various studies of crises.
Unfortunately, these pretty pictures are often at the expense of solid storytelling. Not since the Virgin Suicides has Coppola helmed a project that didn’t eventually fall into a morass of sloppy if not downright bad writing and anticlimax (I’m looking at you Bling Ring). So here’s three cheers for The Beguiled, a perfection of period costume and production design that’s also satisfyingly sexy enough in the narrative to merit a better than average score. At a 79% score, Rotten Tomatoes definitely agrees.
Interesting fact: both Virgin Suicides and The Beguiled are book adaptation, so perhaps direk Coppola’s screenwriting powers are best when she’s already got the arc mapped out for her by better writers? The proof is definitely staring us in its long skirts and corsets.
The movie is set during the Civil War, at a Southern girls’ boarding school run by Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Most of the schoolgirls are at home, on account of the war but the six sheltered young women who are left have been eking out a living and fending for themselves as best they can.
The school is thrown into chaos when one of the children discover and take in an injured enemy soldier, Corporal McBurney (Colin Farrell) and provide him refuge and medicine. During his convalescence, the house is taken over with sexual tension, especially with the older girls. Dangerous rivalries and taboos are broken, conflicts heretofore unrevealed are brought to fore. In all this, who has been beguiled and who has seduced who?
Here are 8 ways to make a thick gumbo of Southern Gothic.
Get a Civil War Novel As Source Material
The 1966 book was originally titled A Painted Devil by Thomas P. Cullinan, it was eventually retitled to The Beguiled. Even though a man authored it, the whole novel is told from the women’s point of view, with each chapter a different woman telling her story.
Mapping out an excellent narrative of conflicting tensions and emotions, the book has provided Coppola with invaluable tone and climax landmarks that make the pacing and the atmosphere as solid as can be.
“People said to me, ‘Oh, you could set it somewhere else.’,” said Coppola in the media notes of the movie. “But I was fascinated by the Civil War-era South, and at how women were raised at that time to be in relation to men to be delicate and attractive and to be good hostesses. Their whole roles revolved around men, but then the men were gone…what was it like for them, left on their own to survive and to sustain?”
Cast a Colin Farrell
Farrel is the only male presence in the movie and he plays the wounded soldier Corporal John McBurney with enough gusto to seem like he’d gladly screw all the women in the school if they’d give him half the chance. Coppola also decided to keep his character an Irish mercenary from New York designated to a U.S. regiment.
“In the book, the soldier is Irish. When I met with Colin Farrell and heard his natural Irish accent, I thought it would be great to keep that and make McBurney even more exotic for the women,” explained Coppola.
Farrell opines about McBurney that he is “somewhat narcissistic, yet he’s a good judge of people in that he reads what they need. He senses what they may find disdainful and stays away from that, going instead to their soft spot.”
Reference the 1971 Clint Eastwood Movie
Cullinan’s book was first made into a movie of the same title in a 1971 film directed by Don Siegel. It starred Clint Eastwood as John McBurney, with Geraldine Page as Farnsworth, and Elizabeth Hartman, and Jo Ann Harris,
Mostly told from the man’s POV, the 1971 version has John as the central character. As he recovers from his wounds, John begins to bond with each of the women in the house, including a black slave woman Hallie. Same thing ensues when he shows his charming side and the women begin to turn on one another, vying for his affections.
“I watched [the 1971 movie], and the story just kept staying in my mind,” said Coppola.
“How it was weird and the turns were unexpected. I would never think to remake a movie, but I was curious so I got the book it was based on… I thought, what about retelling the story from the women’s point of view? So The Beguiled would be a reinterpretation; the premise is loaded because power dynamics between men and women are universal.”
Map Out Your Vision, Sofia Coppola Style
The filmmaker’s team of artisans included production designer Anne Ross, film editor Sarah Flack, and costume designer Stacey Battat, each of whom has made several movies with her; and Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd, lensing his first feature with Coppola. They also made the decision to shoot on film, and then they opted for an older film aspect ratio of 1:66/1 to see more of the body language.
Coppola and her team started out by doing what they usually do on every movie: share pictures, collect things that inspire them, make mood boards, and map out the scope of the film. Le Sourd said that “what struck me in the research, including looking at daguerreotypes, was how little strong color came through during the Civil War.”