Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled, the writer-director’s adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 Civil War-set novel A Painted Devil, begins as a straightforward Southern Gothic psychodrama. The filmmaker, though, distinguishes her version of the source novel from the 1971 Don Siegel-helmed adaptation starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page by treating Union soldier Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) as a more enigmatic catalyst for the changes that take place inside Miss Martha Farnsworth’s Seminary for Young Ladies upon his arrival. Rather than primarily focus on McBurney and the horrifying consequences of his unchecked horniness, Coppola intensely homes in on her heroines’ conflicted feelings about sex.
Siegel’s film pulpily fixates on McBurney and his outsider status, and how his unchecked lust drives him to monstrously stalk the seminary—like a fox in a hen house. But Coppola’s take is more interested in the boarding school’s all-female residents’ personal struggles to accept that they’re allowed to be sexually attracted to an enemy soldier. Women like headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) and her school’s head teacher, Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), are obviously drawn to McBurney, though they go to great lengths to avoid admitting that attraction. The film is set, after all, in Virginia in 1864, and McBurney is, as Edwina cautions, the kind of man they’ve been warned about: one with a predilection for raping Southern women.
Coppola has made a modern feminist horror film about the dangers of not allowing your social conditioning to talk louder than your personal feelings. She allows her female characters to be aroused without exclusively defining them by their lust. So while Dabney denies that she’s behaving any differently around McBurney, she does comically draw a shawl over her shoulders, and cover the broach that she, as one student points out, hasn’t worn in months. And while Farnsworth attempts to distract herself from her attraction to McBurney by conducting extra group prayers, the awkward timing of all those bon mots that she delivers in French is such that she’s always a stone’s throw away from confessing what she really wants.
Siegel spun the battle of the sexes waged by McBurney against Farnsworth’s increasingly aggressive pupils into a shrill but effective melodrama, where Coppola shifts her psychodrama into the dominion of black comedy. In an especially funny dinner conversation, the seminary’s young ladies fall all over themselves to praise the apple pie that they’re about to eat after McBurney lasciviously admits that “apple pie is my favorite.” They each take turns talking about the pie—one girl says she baked it, another says it was her recipe, and yet another announces that it’s also her favorite desert—in the vain hopes that their relatively innocent outbursts will relieve them of the embarrassment of making a more direct pass at McBurney.
The women of this film are distinguished from Siegel’s female characters by their relatively complex emotions. Here, Farnsworth is initially defined by the smooth, even tonality of Kidman’s voice, as the headmistress initially seeks to normalize McBurney’s presence as much as possible. Farnsworth’s tone is similarly gentle but stern when she warns McBurney, as she does in both Cullinan’s novel and Siegel’s film, that she doesn’t offer him alcohol for his pleasure, but rather to ease the physical pain he’s sustained from a nasty leg wound. But in time, we see the subtle little ways that McBurney affects Farnsworth’s being, bits of business that Kidman profoundly conveys as a haunting from within, from slavishly insisting on saying grace to nervously whispering “bon appétit” when McBurney compliments her cooking.
Those who’ve seen Siegel’s film will remember that McBurney is tricked into eating poisoned mushrooms. Coppola is faithful to the trajectory of Cullinan’s story while reorienting the audience’s allegiances. She subtly highlights Farnsworth’s inner conflict by first showing McBurney choking before then revealing the woman flashing a demure smile to her victim, as if she’s at once proud of and embarrassed by her actions. This is how, with one quick reaction shot, Coppola grants her female characters more agency, recognizing that their neuroses are no longer just symptomatic of the hellish nature of war. In this version of The Beguiled, sexual frustration results from a comical refusal to accept one’s desires for what they are: the stuff of human instinct.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 17—28.