I watched The Beguiled (1971) the evening before I went to Sofia Coppola’s remake, presented as part of the film festival Les Films de Cannes à Bucarest – already at its 8th edition, the event brings each fall to Bucharest the best films that premiered and won prizes earlier the same year at Cannes, along with previous winners.
I didn’t even want to consider going to see the remake without having viewed the original. Let me be clear. I almost never watch a remake, and if I do, I never watch it before seeing the original version. And I wouldn’t have gone to see Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled at all if she had not won the Palme d’Or for directing. Why did she win the prize, anyway? It’s the question I’ve kept asking myself since I watched it.
But let’s start with Don Siegel’s movie. I was immediately won over by it, not in the least thanks to Clint Eastwood’s role as Union soldier John McBurney, too, which is among his best (and most atypical) roles. It is a dark psychological thriller with an underlying tension that you feel from the very beginning to the very end of the film, and the characters are beautifully built up – the great cast and their performances are largely responsible for the well-rounded characters. Each one of them seems to have something to hide or an ulterior motive, adding to the suspense – McBurney, wounded in a battle during the Civil War, is found by a little girl and brought to the seminary for young ladies in the Confederate South where she lives, and after he is initially kept under watch and locked in the school’s music room, he starts to bond with each of the women in the house.
Siegel’s film is placed entirely at an isolated girls’ school, but the weariness and ruination of the war are depicted through period photographs at the beginning of the movie. And the war permeates the entire film, through the conversations of the characters, as well as through the occasional passings-through of the soldiers. Oh, right, and in the 1971 film, there is also a slave, Hallie (Mae Mercer), with whom McBurney seeks common cause, saying: “You and I ought to be friends. We’re both kind of prisoners here.” Mae Mercer’s moments are very powerful, just as Clint’s. In other words, Don Siegel’s film is realistic, has a story to tell, and a heavy word at that. The over-all effect is startling, beguiling; the film stays with you.
Now, on to Coppola’s version. I would lie if I said I didn’t like anything at all about it. It has beautiful cinematography and great light, but this works both in its favour and against it. Sure, it’s beautiful to look at, but it looks more like a fairy tale than like a story taking place during the war. It just doesn’t make sense. I also liked the director’s choice not to use a score almost at all, and, in turn, relying on the natural sounds, which amplifies the feeling of isolation of the characters. But that’s about it I’m afraid.
All performances are below those in the 1971 film. There is no trace of Geraldine Page’s matriarchal vigour in Nicole Kidman; Colin Farrell lacks Eastwood’s malice, duplicity, and, well, yes, charm; Kirsten Dunst fails to transmit the innocent yet impetuous drive of Elizabeth Hartman; and Elle Fanning, unlike Jo Ann Harris, is more of an ethereal being than an expert in flirting. In fact, all dressed in white, Coppola’s girls all seem otherworldly, and when they do dress up for a dinner having the corporal as guest of honour, they truly go over the top with fancy clothes and jewellery. In Don Siegel’s film, the idea of dressing up (in order to capture the soldier’s attention) is merely a little more than a suggestion and resumes only to putting on a brooch to the dresses they wear daily. And, believe me, the impact is much more profound. Siegel’s girls go barefoot, working and digging in the garden alongside Hallie so that they can eat. Coppola’s are neatly dressed at all times and don’t seem to make any effort to provide for their food (there is no sign of the hardships of war), especially that they don’t have a slave either to do that for them. Yes, that’s right, Coppola got rid of that character, one of the most important and thought-provoking elements of the story. There is not much else related to the war either, so why she wanted to do a remake of this particular story when the effect she’s after is clearly far off such theme, I can not understand. In Coppola’s film, character and plot are swallowed up in mood and I am afraid that after the film ends, there is nothing you can take away from it.
photo: movie still from The Beguiled (1971) | Malpaso Company, Universal Pictures