Friday, June 30, 2017

The Beguiled

I never knew where The Beguiled was going. The conventions of film made me speculate, but my predictions were consistently wrong. Even if I came close to calling the movie early, writer/director Sofia Coppola deviated from the norm in a way that was immensely compelling. This isn’t to suggest that The Beguiled is full of shocking twists; it’s more abstract than that. What’s captivating about the film is how it flirts with convention, but choses to introduce more human, complex variables.   

The movie is set in Virginia, three years into the Civil War. Early in the film, a girl discovers a badly wounded Union soldier named John (Colin Farrell) and helps him back to her small, all-girls boarding school. As soon as John arrived at the school, I knew where The Beguiled was headed. He was going to get better, wreak havoc, and face the consequences. But The Beguiled is smarter than that, its characters are more layered. And very shortly into the film, I realized it was better to sit back and let the experience wash over me. I met the film halfway and was transported. And that, simply put, does not happen much anymore.

We live in a weird time, media wise. A time where I binge-watch a full season of television in one week, then have trouble remembering a single thing from that season, mere days after I watched it. We’re so fixated on instant gratification; the episode-ending cliffhanger that triggers our mind to allow just one more. But more than ever, the majority of TV and film I consume is utterly hollow. The other day, a friend asked me if I liked Kong: Skull Island, and I realized I could not remember a thing about it. I sat in the theater and was fully engaged while watching it, but I can’t recall one line of dialogue, or one standout scene. All I remember is watching it, and leaving the theater content that I got what I paid for.
That’s how the majority of content has been for me the past few years. As soon as I turn Netflix off or walk out of a theater, the hollow gratification of the content begins to fade away, and I’m left with no lasting memory of what I’ve seen. There are exceptions, of course, and the point I’m trying to make is that I sometimes forget movies like The Beguiled still exist. The Beguiled was made for $10 million and shot in 26 days, which is nothing compared to today’s content standards. Yet the film is more visually appealing and emotionally resonant than any five modern TV shows I’ve seen combined, perhaps because The Beguiled feels classic in a digital age. 

I don’t want to oversell the film. I enjoyed it immensely, but it’s far from Sofia Coppola’s best work. The movie is slow and patient, tediously composed and lacking in conventional plot. But it’s new. It’s fresh and alive. It lives in a way very few films do today. And that makes it worthwhile.

John is led back to the school and we meet the women who will soon be affected by him. Martha (Nicole Kidman) runs the school; she’s fair, strict, and deeply religious. Martha’s conflict with housing a Union soldier in a Confederate state is instantly apparent. Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) teaches at the school. She’s the heart of the film; innocent and kind, captivated by John right away. Alicia (Elle Fanning) is the eldest pupil; suspicious and mischievous as most sexually confused teenagers are. And that’s what The Beguiled is really about: the confusion of sexual repression. Martha, Edwina and Alicia are all spinning for John in one way or another, and John plays into each of them masterfully. But to what avail? There isn’t a single scene of The Beguiled in which we see John alone. The entire film is captured through the eyes of the women, so we’re never privy to John’s intentions. Such a narrative choice helps make the film so arresting. 
The importance Sofia Coppola places on her visual aesthetic makes her one of the most visually confident directors working in film. She has great respect for composition, it’s evident in all of her work. She hires cinematographers who aren’t afraid to take risks. Edward Lachman (The Virgin Suicides), Lance Acord (Lost in Translation, Marie Antoinette), Harris Savides (Somewhere, The Bling Ring), and now Philippe Le Sourd - all men whose specific styles blend perfectly with Coppola’s vision. 

The look of The Beguiled is classic and gorgeous. The movie is bathed in soft blues and blush pinks, creams and sunsets. The camera moves little, occasionally pushing in to emphasize a point, or panning sideways to fully capture a space. Coppola treats cinematography as a character. The Beguiled was shot on 35mm and is displayed in the 1:66.1 aspect ratio, giving the film a tight, almost claustrophobic ambience. These photographical choices say something about the film. We’re stuck in the school with the characters; at times we feel welcomed, other times trapped. The overall look of The Beguiled (in terms of cinematography, production design, and costumes) will certainly rank among the year’s best. 

To beguile is to lead by deception; to influence by trickery and flattery. For nearly all the film, it’s never fully clear who the beguiled is. Is John being tricked by the women, are the women being duped by the soldier, or is everyone too scared to speak freely? Is John a guest, or a prisoner? A hinderance, or a help? Coppola keeps these answers from us, until they are revealed. And even then, we’re left to wonder. A-

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28 comments:

  1. I'm hoping to see the film this weekend as it's definitely the one film I'm very excited to see. Especially as I'm a Sofia fanboy. BTW, have you seen the Don Siegel version and which one do you think is better or they're just completely different films?

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    1. The Don Siegel film is batshit crazy. Sofia's is nothing like it in tone. You certainly won't see Farrell making out with a 10 year old in the opening scene, as you do Clint in Siegel's version haha.

      Really excited to hear your thoughts on this one!

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  2. You do know it's a remake of an old Clint film right ?

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    1. Well technically it's a new adaptation of Thomas P. Cullinan's book, A Painted Devil. Coppola's film is really nothing like Siegel's film. Coppola is much more faithful to the original text (womens' POV, John's Irish heritage, etc.) I honestly didn't think it was worth mentioning in my review, simply because the films are so polar opposite.

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  3. I really enjoyed this one as well. Just posted my own review. I especially agree with you on the Colin Farrell role and the choice to have us infer his intentions through his interactions with the Kidman, Dunst, and Fanning characters. I also love the detail with which you describe Coppola's choices in terms of cinematography, which is clearly this film's crowning achievement. I made note of and love so much how so many of the compositions lent themselves to moments of dark humor. I laughed out loud several times during my screening.

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    1. It was funny! That's definitely a point worth mentioning. Good call there. It had Sofia's brand of subtle humor, which I always appreciate. The Bling Ring, for example, is hilarious. The characters are so absurdly ignorant in their entitlement, that they have no idea how ridiculous they sound. Thanks for the comment!

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  4. This has been one of my most anticipated movies for while now. Glad to hear you liked it. Really looking forward to watching it now.

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    1. Can't wait to hear your thoughts. It's so gorgeous, so patient, so... Sofia.

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  5. Oh man. I'm still waiting on this one to come to me!

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    1. I hope it does soon - this one deserves a bigger audience!

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  6. I liked this one too, I never got around to seeing the original, so I had nothing to compare it to. I'm okay with that.

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    1. I hadn't seen the original before this one either. But holy shit, it is insane. Like... Clint makes out with the little girl who discovers him... in minute 2. It's a total '70s exploitation flick.

      But I'm so glad you liked Sofia's!

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  7. Great review! This has been on my to-watch list forever. I don't know when I'll get a chance to see it this year, but what I've read so far keeps my hopes up. Kidman is having a stunning performance-record this year.

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    1. I hope you can see it soon. It isn't getting a big release at all, which is such a shame. It deserves a patient audience, not a quick 2 week release in a handful of theaters :(

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  8. I just saw the grade (for now) and FUCK I'M SO EXCITED!!!!

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  9. While I still don't understand what possessed Coppola not to involve Jackman here - and I wish she did because him in that role ripping buttons and stockings would have finally grant me the sweet release of death - Farrell is in general very underrated and unlucky so it's good he is finally in something getting praise. I agree that the films really do seem like products, specifically Marvel and Disney stuff in which I do not even have much interest anymore. Horrors seem to follow the same formula lately too and honestly the only two movies I really remembered that year are Logan and Baby driver but because of opposite reasons. Goddamn, I hated Baby Driver.

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    1. This comment rocks. "...grant me the sweet release of death" haha that is fuckin' poetry right there.

      Also, I few years ago, I decided to start blogging solely about movies I recommend and want people to see. Takes a lot of time to blog (for free, no less), so I decided to dedicate that time to shit I like. Just a personal choice. My point is, I have read every tweet and paragraph (in your latest post) about Baby Driver, and the only thing I can say is: I fully agree.

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    2. Oh man I am sooooo glad to read it. You are literally the second person to share my feelings. I was legit starting to think there is something wrong with me which there obviously is it's just it never had anything to do with my taste in movies and objectively noticing something is unbearable and overrated as hell

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    3. My main issue was that the movie had no idea what kind of movie it wanted to be. At first I thought it was a fantasy that didn't want to be taken seriously. But then it had "serious" elements, so I think it wanted to be viewed as a action/drama/comedy/romance...? I was tonally confused throughout. And I also can't recall an R-rated movie of recent memory that so desperately wanted to be PG-13. They didn't show a lot of deaths (actors blocking the shots, deaths off screen, etc), they were afraid to say the word "cocaine," and so on. I had heard that, at the very least, the car chases were incredible. But they weren't. They were edited into oblivion (cut, cut, cut!, cut!), and far too convenient (three fire-red cars on the highway at the same time, right next to each other... k). The movie just wasn't for me. I first time I checked the time (I checked four times), I was certain the film was almost over. Only an hour had passed. Never a good sign.

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    4. I literally never ever wanted to sit in the last row and take out my phone and read twitter instead of watching the movie before but this time it happened and had it not been for my battery dying I would have totally gone and done that. You're so right about all the PG-13 stuff. I did enjoy car chase scenes but that's probably because during those at least something was happening but yeah that three cares next to each other was just ridiculous! I thought maybe it was planned and it was clever ploy on crew's part but they actually wanted the audience to believe in this coincidence. Just the mess all around, I'm so baffled at that praise. Usually I can see why people like something but honestly this film was just annoying and nothing innovative. Synching the soundtrack to the movie? I mean it's not like it was the first movie to do that, Tarantino does something like this all the time particularly in Kill Bill

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    5. The praise does confuse me as well. But I'm kind of at a loss with praise recently. Films and shows seems to be a bit overpraised at the moment. I don't know if it's me (because I'm not definitely not being more critical), or if the majority is overpraising things in general. But I certainly don't understand the lavish attention that film has received either. I agree, there was nothing remotely innovative about it. I say all this, but it's important to note that people like what they like, and that's fine. I mean, if that many people are getting joy from Baby Driver, then good on them. It just wasn't at all for me.

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  10. I love your review. This is patient cinema for sure. The tension was incredible and the ending was pretty soft, but seemed intentionally so. I felt captivated throughout but not necessarily thinking "I love this". Then after the movie my sister and I talked about it the whole ride home, exchanging our takes on scenes and characters. That sort of conversation starter always adds to the film in retrospect. Overall, I definitely liked the story, the characters were fascinating, and its simply gorgeous, as expected in Coppola's hands. And I'm really glad Farrell didn't kiss little Amy. Yuck.

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    1. Thanks Jess! Yes, I fully agree. I had the same experience with The Bling Ring. I liked it while watching it, but when I left the theater, I couldn't get it out of my head. Sofia's films kind of creep up on you in that way. They're so smart and layered with depth. And yes, VERY glad Farrell didn't kiss Amy too. Soooo weird when Clint does that in the original.

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  11. This got an A/A- from me. For my money, her best work alongside Translation. I love her decision to shoot on 35mm with 1:66. Along with the measured pacing and strong performances, it really had this lingering, haunted effect that these types of period capture at their best.

    Unrelated sidenote: Another fascinating choice I have seen recently regarding aspect ratios is what Trey Edward Shults does with It Comes At Night. It's really effective in building tension and claustrophobia.

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    1. So happy you liked this one. I actually appreciate it more now that some time has passed.

      I had trouble with It Comes At Night. Felt like an empty use of an interesting concept. I really wanted to like it, but the film never fully hit for me.

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