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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On Architecture & Use of Space: Ben Wheatley’s HIGH-RISE vs. Nicholas Winding Refn’s THE NEON DEMON

Two films released this year showcase first and foremost a unique architecture in their set designs and an equally unique use of space between the characters and their surroundings. However, one film manages to make a note of its structural choices in the ultimate lesson it attempts to convey. The other film’s choices are as thoughtless as flipping the thin pages of a high-end fashion magazine.

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The structural alignment of beams, floors, decks, and their vicinity from the parking lot in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise is a physical manifestation of social hierarchy and the seperation of economic class. Many British stories, from E.M. Forsters’ Howard’s End and beyond have focused on the disparity and malevolence between the bourgeoisie and those subjected to a lower pedestal and even the sewers of the social strata. In J.G. Ballard’s novel, which Wheatley has, with his signature explosive cinematic style, translated into film, these socio-economic tales of the yesteryears are thrust forward into a quasi-post-apocalyptic world (it seems normal, but something is ominous about the air) where a series of high-rises dominate the landscape and stare down (literally the top of the buildings are tilted slightly so as to seem the building is “looking” downward) to the Earth with a shivering coldness.

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The main protagonist Robert Laing, has an apartment somewhere in the middle of the building. He is perpetually dressed in shirt and tie, to the point where it almost seems that that is his skin (even during sex, he never takes his outfit off). Throughout the film, the architecture of the building gives an aesthetic dimension to its residence’s statuses in society. The top floors (which also host the Architect, the creator of the building) are huge, barren except for the luxurious minimalist furniture that sets itself more like a modern art piece than something to sit on. The clothing is similarly porcelain… clean whites, straight blacks. The lower floors are decorated the way we may decorate our own houses. Pots of plants, pictures kids drew magneted to the refrigerator, some simple paintings and family photos hanging from the walls. The residents clothes have more color and are knitted with designs. Every part of the look of the film is meant to portray the status of a member or group within the “society”. As the war between the lower and upper floors begins to bubble, we start to see foundations shake quite literally… the lobby of the hotel becomes a mess and the cement beams start to chip away. There’s fires in the hallways. One of the bourgeoisie individuals jumps off his balcony to crash and die in the parking lot. A kind of cheeky metaphor of the phrase “the higher you rise the harder you fall”, and quite deliberate in this case, for the parking lot is the only part of the complex where all residents of all floors are on the same level. There’s no turning up one’s nose there because there’s nowhere to go vertically.

High-Rise: 

Now on the complete opposite end of the platform, is Nicholas Winding Refn’s latest film, The Neon Demon, one which uses space and structure for nothing other than a “cool look”. While there is a clear metaphorical density to the design of Wheatley’s film, The Neon Demon’s use of architecture is more akin to million-dollar wrapping paper on an empty box. The resulting film is eerily similar to the smug, rotten, and morally defunct interiors of the top floors of the Wheatley’s High-Rise. The characters themselves function more like glass mannequins with no interior working parts. They are quite literally the subject of objectification and the male gaze, and even if the intent of this was to reveal the hollowness of Hollywood’s show-business, there was no attempt by Refn to examine it. Instead, the camera’s central job in this film is to move in lateral motions as the actresses, scantily clad, dolled up to the hilt, stare coldly at one another or into space. Sometimes there’s flickering neon lights. Much of the minimalist scene setting in Refn’s films has existed since Valhalla Rising, but this is the first time it seems like just time-filler. The actresses just take up space.

The Neon Demon: