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Garish Melodrama Becomes Universal Tragedy 'The Beguiled'


This is FRESH AIR. Writer-director Sofia Coppola won the prize for best director at this year's Cannes Film Festival for "The Beguiled," her remake of a civil war drama that originally starred Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page. Coppola's adaptation features Nicole Kidman, Elle Fanning and Colin Farrell. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Sofia Coppola has done something fascinating with the Southern gothic psycho drama "The Beguiled." She's taken a 1971 movie directed by a man, Don Siegel, and remade it from a female perspective. The differences between the two versions are sometimes broad, sometimes subtle. But with the same basic material, these are very different movies, each with its own distinct power.

"The Beguiled" is set towards the end of the Civil War when a gravely wounded union corporal played by Colin Farrell - he was Clint Eastwood in 1971 - is found by the students and staff of a Southern girls' boarding school. The small group, much diminished since the start of the war, discusses whether to turn the soldier, McBurney, over to the nearby Confederate army, which would likely mean he'd die, or take him in and treat him. They let him stay. He's quite handsome, by the way. And he's Irish, a mercenary rather than a Yankee.

Almost from the start, he disturbs the school's delicate equilibrium. That equilibrium is what Coppola's "The Beguiled" underlines, the notion that this antebellum manor where French and etiquette are taught is a place of grace in an ugly world, reminders of which come in recurrent, distant cannon booms. Coppola's palate is soft but radiant. The white dresses glow against the pale landscape.

Farrel's McBurney introduces dirt, blood, flesh and earthy desire. Over dinner, the formal Miss Martha, the head of the school played by Nicole Kidman, tries to steer the minds of her students, especially Elle Fanning's flirtatious Alicia, towards higher things.


NICOLE KIDMAN: (As Martha Farnsworth) It has occurred to me that we might reflect on the unexpected presence of Corporal McBurney in the house until his leg heals of course. And we might discuss how we may practice compassion and what else we might learn from his presence here. What does each of you think of this? Miss Alicia, can you tell us what you think we may learn from his presence here?

ELLE FANNING: (As Alicia) Maybe the sight of him will remind us there's something else in the world besides lessons.

KIDMAN: (As Martha Farnsworth) It seems to me that is all there should be for any young lady your age.

EDELSTEIN: McBurney's main objective is staying alive. But as everyone starts dressing more carefully and sneaking into his room to talk, he senses his power. He seems to enjoy manipulation. He concentrates especially on Kirsten Dunst's prim instructor, Edwina, who flushes the most easily and seems to him the easiest to control. When she chides him for running from a battle, he knows how to turn the conversation around.


KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) It wasn't very brave of you to run.

COLIN FARRELL: (As John McBurney) Maybe not, but it was smart, I think.

DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) Because you're alive.

FARRELL: (As John McBurney) Now I've met you.

DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) You don't even know me.

FARRELL: (As John McBurney) I know your name, Miss Edwina Morrow.

DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) And what else have you been told about me?

FARRELL: (As John McBurney) Nothing besides your name. It's a lovely name.

DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) I hope the girls weren't telling stories.

FARRELL: (As John McBurney) What do you care what they say about you?

DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) I don't. I just didn't want you to get the wrong impression.

FARRELL: (As John McBurney) Then you do care what I think about you.

DUNST: (As Edwina Dabney) You're a stranger here. That's all.

EDELSTEIN: What happens after McBurney makes his play is a mythic male dread, a vindictive woman with a knife and saw. In Don Siegel's 1971 version, Miss Martha is the method actress Geraldine Page, who seethes with sexual jealousy. Sofia Coppola has a different take, which makes all the difference in the story. Nicole Kidman's Miss Martha is rigorously rational. She grimly studies the impact of McBurney's sexual magnetism on the girls, the way they suddenly vie for his attention and measure themselves against one another. Miss Martha doesn't blame him for everything that's gone wrong, but she knows he's fundamentally cunning, predatory and unstable, a legitimate danger to her girls and her school.

Something has been lost in this more measured approach. Kidman is on the dull side, and this "Beguiled" doesn't have the horrific, mythical overtones of, say, the great Greek spectacle "The Bacchae" where women rip a man to shreds. It's rather genteel. But Coppola is pushing back against millennia of misogyny, against stories that portray men lured by sirens and helpless before their demonic wrath. If anything, she suggests the greatest danger is posed by men who are afraid of women, who justify their misogyny and violence in the name of self-defense. In Coppola's "The Beguiled," a garish melodrama becomes a universal tragedy.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. Monday on FRESH AIR, America's infatuation with gold. We'll talk with James Leadbetter, author of "One Nation Under Gold: How One Precious Metal Has Dominated The American Imagination For Four Centuries." He'll talk about the history of this precious metal and explain what the gold standard is and why some politicians would like to return to it. Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.