The Beguiled (2017, Sofia Coppola)
No, genius, that’s not a still from The Beguiled up above — and it really should be, because it’s one of the most painterly and unforgettably gorgeous movies of the current century, the rare film that makes you actually glad they started making movies in color — it’s a work by surrealist Southern Gothic photographer Clarence John Laughlin, whose work is about the uncomfortable conflict between the past and present, and every terrifying thing entailed by their coexistence. Of course, his photographs are also just simply beautiful, a pleasure to see, despite being a scope into a truly ugly world, that of the Antebellum South and the ruins of its plantations, its onetime centers of tyranny. I was quite surprised to find that no one involved with the film seems to have mentioned Laughlin’s work in any interviews given during its press cycle, though it could just be that no one bothered asking, because it seems difficult for me to believe that pieces like this did not have some sort of impact on this film’s cinematography and production design. I bring this up because maybe the reason I’m so out of tune with an awful lot of people on this movie is that making a minimalist narrative of repressed sexuality with thriller elements that feels inspired by Clarence John Laughlin photographs is exactly what I think I would probably want to do with my time if I had the power to create movies; that my favorite working director is the one who decided to do this might help a bit, but all the same, it certainly seems to me that almost no creative decision being made here is anything but absolutely the correct one. I’m not going to bother laying out the basic mechanics of the story; I’ll assume you’ve seen it, and just do my best to state my case.
One Letterboxd reviewer described the setting of The Beguiled as “an ecosystem”; Jonathan Rosenbaum called it “a PhD thesis.” I find these comments to be basically accurate to how the film works, and a testament to a clarity and closed-off structure that hasn’t been seen in its director’s work in well over a decade, though they don’t really challenge the more general interpretation of Sofia Coppola’s sixth feature as beautiful but empty, a criticism that frustrates me for the same reason it frustrates me when Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 is cast off for being flat and emotionless — Coppola’s filmography to date consists wholly of films that have been widely interpreted, Mars Attacks!-style, as precisely whatever it is they’re critiquing. In The Beguiled, war is an inconvenience — a suggestion of an outside world of strife, fighting, tragedy, racism, evil, and also sex, sensuality, worldliness — injecting itself into a bubble, an aberration that forces a basically privileged faction to contend with something human, wild, unpredictable, completely at odds with their own prior experiences. Coppola isn’t interested in telling the kind of story in which such a schism has immediate long-term consequences; she’s interested in the sweeping under the rug, the going on as if nothing ever happened… the disturbance in the ecosystem is to be eliminated, and then all knitting and learning seems to press on as before, with only darted glances and a corpse outside the gate suggesting otherwise. It’s a “PhD thesis” because it’s a formally strict, though sometimes humorous, examination of how the sudden chaos (Colin Farrell, a wounded Union soldier being taken care of by a group of women and girls at a desolate school in Virginia) establishes itself, encroaches, develops, explodes, and is finally destroyed.
Of course, even beyond the fact that this is a remake of a Don Siegel film that was itself an adaptation of a novel, that isn’t a new idea. (In fact it’s the second half of Barry Lyndon, more or less, which fits superficially with candlelit rooms and the 1.66 aspect ratio.) It’s not even really a new idea for this director, at least structurally. Lost in Translation ends with blissed-out romantic catharsis, even if it’s a disappointed kind, but every one of her films since then has deliberately denied us any similar relief — Marie Antoinette shows us only the prelude to its characters’ doom where MGM wrung every drop of sentimentality from it in 1938; Somewhere closes, after a long buildup, on a facial expression and small chuckle that engaged viewers spent as much time debating and arguing over as rockabilly heads might over the tail end of an Elvis laugh caught on tape; and The Bling Ring invited all sorts of ire by simply acknowledging the world it came into as ridiculous and trivial, closing with an intentional whimper. The Beguiled is more dramatic and disturbing by default because someone is dead, but conceptually Coppola’s reticence to offer meaning or heavy drama, to in fact locate the creepily mundane in wildly bizarre situations, is now essentially a theme. That’s why it doesn’t bother me that Farrell’s death scene has no real tension or buildup within it, that indeed it seems almost mechanical in its inevitability, like an especially drab ballet. To me the film’s argument is its lack of an argument; like The Bling Ring it refuses to give into obvious temptations to become didactic and judgmental, while quietly suggesting something especially dim and troubling about human nature, a kind of bland resilience in response to trauma that almost anyone else’s movie would find a reason to celebrate.
In some ways this feels like a career summation, if we look at all of Coppola’s previous films as being really about women at different stages of their lives, childhood or adolescence or young adulthood, here all gathered together at once to react to the stimulus of a man whose ambiguity of character and whose physical beauty manages to throttle each of them quite differently. The performances are all magnificent displays of careful restraint, oozing with indirect intensity like the characters in Polanski’s Knife in the Water, another film in which you keep waiting for something to happen that doesn’t, and what finally does happen is maddening and frustrating; Coppola’s treatment of these sometimes painfully stilted and consistently confused, tentative interactions is so compelling that one may be slightly disappointed when she briefly allows fear and loudness to overtake, but it’s fascinating to see her approach the mechanics of a thriller in one of her films, and this short-lived twist attains a power from the contrast. (The unseen but clearly heard raids on Versailles at the climax of Marie Antoinette had a similarly jarring, genuinely horrifying effect.)
It doesn’t seem like a negative to me that The Beguiled is completely of a piece with Coppola’s other movies; her career demonstrates how strong and probing American movies might well be if more directors had the level of freedom and immunity from critical and financial burdening that she almost exclusively enjoys, due to her family’s legacy and to the idiotic resistance to public funding for the arts in this country. Is it fair that she’s the one who benefits from a situation like this? Probably not, but it’s lucky for us; you know perfectly well she anticipated how The Beguiled would be received if she made it the way she wanted to, and she did it anyway. Not sure I’d call it gutsy since it’s so low-risk for her… but then again, isn’t that exactly what this movie is about? The ability of certain people to inflict something on the world that the rest of us never could? That she would even try to wrestle with this part of her identity says a lot about who she is, and why we’re all made richer by her being in this position.