What do we mean when we say that a filmmaker is “limited”? Is it that their talents are relatively confined? Or is it that because of their particular sensibilities, they choose to make films within a specific arena? Perhaps the better question is: How much does that matter? A filmmaker like Hong Sang-soo, for example—at Cannes this year with both The Day After and Claire's Camera—could certainly be described as “limited” in some respects; but he still produces some of the most consistent and interesting work in the contemporary cinematic landscape. It can't be denied, though, that it's always exciting when filmmakers push themselves and make films squarely outside their comfort zones, which could be said of Sofia Coppola who returns to Cannes this year with The Beguiled. Adapted from Thomas P. Cullinan’s gothic novel A Painted Devil as well as the original 1971 movie adaptation by Don Siegel, the film marks new territory for Coppola. But while her vision is predictably sharp in the way that it tackles the material’s sexual politics, the film also feels flattened, stripped of its lurid, psychosexual appeal. Even more than “limited,” it feels safe.
The setting is an all-girls boarding school in Mississippi, the Martha Farnsworth Seminary for Young Ladies, three years into the Civil War. And immediately, the opening—the ornate pink curlicues of the title card; the figure of a small girl walking alone along the forest path framed by dense foliage, the morning fog drifting across; the muffled explosions of cannon-fire in the distance—acclimates us to the enthralling, threatening mood. But it's not long before one begins to feel that precision slipping from Coppola’s grasp. Amy (Oona Laurence), a young girl out picking mushrooms in the nearby forest, happens upon the prone figure of Col. John McBurney (Colin Farrell), a Union soldier, and brings him back to the boarding school. It's a scene that should be filled with palpable danger and tension—and in Siegel’s original, where Clint Eastwood kisses a 12-year-old girl, even seduction— but that plays out as blandly cordial, almost perfunctory. That's true, too, of the scene that follows, in which Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), who runs the school, Miss Edwina Dabney (Kirsten Dunst), a teacher there, and the rest of the girls take the injured McBurney in.
In fact, that could be said of much of the film, which largely forgoes the story’s lurid, grimy underbelly for a relatively tame approach; it's a terse, stripped-down remake that retains the original's overall arc, but jettisons some of what made that version so compelling. (Among the differences from Siegel's adaptation, one of the most curious is that Hallie, the black servant in the original version, is omitted here.) In itself, that's more a neutral judgment, a manifestation of divergent visions. But Coppola, uncharacteristically, doesn't fare much better by the psychological detail. Once McBurney is taken into the house as a prisoner and unwelcome guest, the tenor of the space begins to change, as do the women. And it's in these cloistered spaces that the psychosexual tension—initially lent a fascinating pull by the film's distanced air—begins to flower. But the web of intrigue, deceit and jealousy—mainly between Miss Martha, Miss Edwina and Alicia (Elle Fanning), the eldest and most seductive of the students—is so loosely drawn that the decisive turn the story takes is drained of its supposed heft; it's somehow both flat and risible when it should be ridiculous, horrific and shocking all at once. That's partly due to the direction, which finds Coppola bending the potboiler drama to her more ethereal, composed style. (While largely compelling, the detachment tempers the force of the story's most unhinged moments.) But the issue can also be traced to the performances of the ensemble cast. The female actors fare well enough, particularly Dunst, who manages to convey an inward repression, a sense of woman trapped by circumstance, whose only desire is “to be taken far away.” But Farrell, in his second Competition film this year (playing the role that Clint Eastwood had originally), falters. He's charismatic and outwardly seductive, but almost too open in demeanor, conveying little sense of danger or inward desire lurking beneath—it’s a limited performance that really should be the impenetrable, fascinating center.
Every frame of the film, shot by Philippe Le Sourd (who previously shot Wong Kar-wai's The Grandmaster) feels poised and meaningful, alternating between warm, candlelit interiors, dusky exteriors, and the threatening pallor beneath it all. Its rhythms, however, don't involve in the way one would expect given the surprisingly short runtime—just 94 minutes compared to the 105 of the original. Atypically, it's a streamlined film that may have done better with less “efficient” editing. (A late scene in which Miss Martha instructs Amy to tie a blue ribbon on the gates of the school-ground to signal “their” soldiers, which then cuts immediately to McBurney catching Amy doing so, is a particularly egregious example.) The approach does lend some brisk fascination to the finale, which pulls a shot straight out of the 1971 film (the camera tracking a dish passed along the dinner table), only to make a tension-diffusing, but purposeful departure. But the conscious rewriting of the original, although it enriches the film's ample subtext, also diminishes the immediate ground-level interest.
“The enemy is not what we had believed,” says Miss Farnsworth, which is as clear a (feminist) statement as they come, as is the final image, in which the camera pulls back from the women gathered behind iron-wrought gates of the school. The meaning is clear; but because The Beguiled is also so frustratingly limited (though accomplished in many respects), its implications resonate unfavorably in more ways than one.