THE BEGUILED – Civil War, without the War.

 

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The Beguiled (Sophia Coppola, 2017)

 

What I felt most surprised by in The Beguiled was the simplicity of its story arc and setting. The atmospherics Sophia Copolla creates seep out of the screen so well, with its quiet malevolence, moody lighting, and the on-edge performances of its characters, that by the movie’s end, that same technical brilliance completely outweighed any attempt at a rapturous story.

Based on a novel by Thomas P. Cullinan, The Beguiled has been done before, by Don Seigel in a Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page starring film in 1971, but to very different ends. Seigel, an action director, was very much in favor of creating a film that amped up the drama and twists of the storyline, giving Eastwood a meaty role and playing the sexual and violent nature of the characters, to the backdrop of the Civil War that much more in-your-face. In other words, Seigel and Eastwood envisioned a clear political and social motive to the film, and that was not to be mistaken or forgotten.

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Copolla’s rendition is closer to a beautifully decorated stage play. The backdrop of the Civil War, which features prominently in the Cullinan novel, remains a far distant event here, sputtering in and out of our ears with soft booms. The fact that McBurney (Colin Farrell) is a Union soldier and the Girls Home is clearly South-aligned is merely an inconvenience between the sexual tension that is unmistakable from the get-go. The politics of the war, the people who’s livelihoods it is centered around (black slaves), and the idea of war, the death and destruction and loss and hate that surrounds it, are all either thrown into the back as minor topics or erased from the film’s world altogether.

Instead, the biggest nod to any politics in the film lies in the gender-relations at play between different girls reactions and perceptions of the Corporal, which can be thought of in stages of how we experience and react to love growing up. The youngest girl looks up to Corporal McBurney as a father figure, the second-youngest has a kiddie crush, the middle girl is skeptical and antagonistic towards him, the teenager (Elle Fanning) is experiencing sexual attraction lit by a sense of rebellion for the first time, the second-oldest (Kirsten Dunst, easily the films best performance) really falls in love and imagines a future with him, and the oldest (Nicole Kidmann) treats him as a stranger only later warming up to his presence.

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Not much is made of these, however, as the film follows a familiar path of a man caught between the love of multiple women. Instead, Coppola’s visual canvas remains the central artistic pillar of her film. The movie grows darker, literally in its lighting and art direction, as the passions of the girls start to swell up into maddening jealousy and a singular decision by the Corporal flares up into an impending doom for everyone. The sunlit gardens and bright pink and white dresses waving through the Virginia greenery give way now to faded dull pastels and a monotone cloudy sky. Normally I’m incredibly favorable to films which centralize their visuals, but those still need to be at the service of the story. If the look of the film and the building of its world are its greatest strengths, they need to be complimented with themes and ideas of equal vibrancy.

This is not to say that The Beguiled isn’t good, but considering the densely political layering of Cullinan’s novel, and the brooding intensity of the Seigel adaptation, Coppola’s decision to go minimalist in terms of story here seems less a brave decision and more a head-scratching one. There’s no Tarkovskian metaphysics at play, so what we end up with is a decent story of jealousy and fear played with a straight face and beautiful scenery, but lacking in the density needed to make a lasting impression.

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Cinderella

CINDERELLA
Cinderella (Kenneth Branagh, 2015)

This is definitely a Kenneth Branagh film. Or, at least, it undoubtedly looks like one. The tradition of the Branagh literary period piece has sets, costumes, and atmospherics which swallow us whole and transport us straight into the time and place of the story. Every shot is an establishing shot, with actors are figures in a grand opera of lavish linens, and cathedral ceilings. Hairdos and makeup are perfectly researched and implemented for the particular time-period in which the characters live. One thing that you can be sure of when watching Cinderella is that its going to look absolutely spectacular as a live-action film.

What I ended up questioning throughout the entirety of the movie however, was whether there was really any purpose to this movie other than to take a beloved children’s Disney animation and let a showman like Branagh go wild with art direction. One of the major plus points the film has received over its run is the fact that it remains traditional in an era of Hollywood cinema that seeks to constantly update and revise past classics for a new generation which is too cool to look back at cinema history. A culture where we now consider the way movies were made in the 50’s or 60’s as passé and conservative. In that sense, I guess you have to give Branagh points because he is adamant about his classical Shakespearean roots and his passionate and detailed stitching and weaving of set-pieces akin to that of a Cecil B. DeMille or a Lucino Visconti. For those of us who sometimes long for the “the way they used to make ’em” kind of cinema, Cinderella gives us the closest thing to our hearts desire… but sadly, this is only in terms of production values.

What Kenneth Branagh completely forgot, was the fact that the meat of the film, its story, its characters, and its whimsy, gave us nothing new or improved from Disney’s original animated film. With live-action, there is always a subconscious need to be more realistic in dealing with the story’s fantasy. The talking and wise-cracking mice were dispensed of in the live-action version. An added backstory of Cinderella’s family, the death of her mother, and the leaving of her father after re-marrying were all added to give a familial context and a real-life emotional dilemma that we could connect with as humans. This came at a cost however, because it was rushed and compromised on any emotion in order to push the story along (this one is longer than the 1950 Cinderella, but it is much faster paced). Disney has usually done marvelously when dealing with emotionally wrenching family tragedies (let’s face it, we all cried during The Lion King), but Cinderella’s father’s death and her entrapment in her house with an evil stepmother didn’t feel like a tragedy, but rather, simply a plot point we had to get past. It seemed, throughout the duration of the film, that it was not only us who were swallowed whole by Branagh’s sets and decorations, but all emotion in the film got inhaled as well, leaving the characters with a rather cold set of dialogues with little to no feeling in them. We didn’t really get a new Cinderella or a new story here, just one which gave us a chance to see animation translated into live-action as closely as possible… a transition of purely technological advancement and not one of any personal depth. Aside from a few instances where Hollywood production values could be taken to their limits (the ball, the search for the mystery girl, the ending crowning ceremony), much of Cinderella maintains true to its source material but Disney’s 1950 original Cinderella was a classic that works as well today as it did back then because of its dramatic heft. It is an antique sculpture with some stains and dents of course, but still beautiful because of its history and influence. Branagh’s film ends up as not much more than a newly polished replica in a gift shop.