Beguiled and Betrayed: Sofia Coppola brings female perspective to remake of Civil War chamber drama

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It was more than four decades ago when Clint Eastwood shouted “You vengeful bitches” to a group of Civil War-era women in the South after they amputated his leg following a lengthy ordeal propelled by female rivalry. Now, it’s Sofia Coppola’s turn to take on The Beguiled with a cast led by Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Colin Farrell and Elle Fanning. And unlike Don Siegel’s 1971 film, her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s novel—which sees a wounded Union soldier find sanctuary at an all-girls boarding school in the Deep South—is told entirely from the perspective of the women. So by the time we reach the point where Farrell screams the same bitter words, we are armed with an entirely different perspective on the events that preceded it.

For the filmmaker of The Virgin Suicides, Marie Antoinette and Lost in Translation, The Beguiled immediately feels like natural territory, as it deals with female isolation and desire—topics she often depicts. But it is also somewhat of a rarity for Coppola: The Beguiled is the leanest and most tightly orchestrated work in her filmography. It’s also a departure from the stories of privilege she often tells.

Coppola, who won Best Director honors at the recent Cannes Film Festival, discussed her confident and unexpectedly humorous The Beguiled with me in a brief phone conversation last weekend. The below is lightly edited for flow and clarity.

Film Journal International: You explore the theme of physical and emotional isolation of women a lot in your films. And you also deal with the emotional endurance of women. Was that a part of The Beguiled's appeal for you, since all those themes exist in this story?

Sofia Coppola: Oh yes, I am interested in those kind of stories, and this one had so much about it. So I was interested in this group and what mattered in life for them. They're so cut off from the world and living together as this group, and then encountering a man after being so cut off.

FJI: Would you then consider your version a feminist rendering of Don Siegel’s film?

SC: To me, [Siegel’s film] was a story about a group of women, but told from the male character's, the soldier’s point of view. And I thought, "Oh, it's such a great premise, I'd love to see the story told from the women's point of view." I don't [necessarily] call it that. I mean, it's told from a female point of view, so you can call it whatever you want. But my intention was to give the women a voice and make it about them.

FJI:I find the way you acknowledge and honor the female gaze very empowering in your films. And I thought this was very much the case in The Beguiled.

SC:Yeah. So much of [the story] is about their desire and their repression. In [this] story, the man is the object instead of the woman for once, and he really becomes the object of all their desire. I was really playing that up—it was fun.

FJI: To that end, I often find that American cinema is not very kind to female sexuality. It's either silenced or made invisible, and we're kind of starved for that.

SC: [There is a lot] to women's desire. And treating that as a natural, real part of their human side [is essential]. [In The Beguiled], I just wanted that to be one of the qualities they were dealing with. And being so cut off, they had no way to express that. I really feel [that] the most for Kirsten [Dunst], because she's at the age where she's never experienced starting a relationship or a family.

FJI: And how did Colin Farrell feel about being a token male, the object of desire?

SC:Y eah, he was a good sport about being the sex object. But he appreciated the story and understood it. I felt it takes a real man to be there and let the women be the strong ones. It takes a confident man, a strong character to [accept that.]

FJI: His Union soldier character is handled a little differently, too. In Don Siegel’s film, you know straightaway he is not to be trusted. But in your film, we only gradually get to see his darker notes.

SC: That is a big difference, because I wanted to tell this one from [the women’s] point of view. You don't know if he's a bad guy; you want to believe him, [you want to believe] what he's saying, and you want to really see it through their eyes. In the original, there's the voiceover and the flashbacks. It's really clear that he's a bad guy. I thought it would be more interesting to be in their [shoes] and wonder, as [they would], whether you can trust him or not.

FJI: This is a really tightly orchestrated chamber piece, requiring all the characters to be closely knit together most of the time. How did you get everybody so comfortable with each other and establish that believable onscreen chemistry?

SC:We spent time the week before shooting, rehearsing together. And the women spent a lot of time together in the house at the time, in corsets and dresses. And they took some dancing lessons. We had an etiquette coach come, a sewing teacher, just learning the kinds of rituals of how women spent time then. So we could just help them feel like a group together and imagine what their days might be like. [This helped them] get into the mode of that time.

FJI: How did you assemble this amazing cast? Did you adapt the story with these specific actors in mind?

SC: Yes, I was really happy to get the cast that I wanted. When I was writing it, the first thing I thought was I'd love to have Kirsten [Dunst] in the role of the teacher. And Elle [Fanning] now is old enough to play the older student. And then I've always loved Nicole Kidman, so I was really happy that she said yes to joining us. So yeah, I wrote the script with them in mind, which helped me a lot. And then when I got Colin [Farrell], I thought he had all the qualities that I was looking for as the only man. And in the book he was an Irish immigrant, so him speaking in his national accent just kind of added another element of his exoticness.

FJI: Kirsten Dunst especially received a lot of praise after the Cannes premiere.

SC:I think she really becomes the heart of the film because she is the most vulnerable. And you're kind of looking through her eyes. She really brought so much to it, and a lot of it's under the surface. It's a quiet performance, but still strong. I'm happy that comes across.

FJI: The humor of  The Beguiled is so striking in unexpected ways. There are certain one-liners that everyone just kept quoting in Cannes, like "I hope you like apple pie" or "Get me the anatomy book."

SC: I really had fun when I was writing the script, writing the dialogue—it was something that I was more focused on than usual. It's funny, my art department made pins at the end of the shoot with those lines on them, made a bunch of random quotes, so we had pins with all those lines. Yeah, it was fun adapting the book and thinking of all that [humor]. There was so much under the surface, a lot of innuendos.

FJI: You shot this on film. Why was it important to you to use film stock?

SC: I love the way film looks, especially in a period [movie]. I wanted it to be really soft and beautiful, bringing us back to another time. So film conveys that so much more. Digital to me feels contemporary. Film has a romantic, soft quality to it. So we used old lenses and I think it helped create the look of the film, which I hope brings the audience into the story and the atmosphere.

FJI: I feel like women are often rivals in movies and they're seldom collaborators. And The Beguiled is great to the end, because even though there is rivalry among them in the beginning, they unite around the common goal eventually. Do you observe that in cinema too, that we're often pitted against each other as females?

SC: It’s a good point. I never really thought about that, but you're right. It’s nice to feel that camaraderie in the film. I know what you mean, [even though] I wasn't consciously realizing there's a lack of that. I love that they're strong and together at the end.

FJI: There could be a very layered reading of your film in today’s political climate. Because of the current administration, women are being even more silenced. So do you view your film differently today from that lens?

SC: You know, when I started work on this a couple of years ago, I didn't. I wasn't thinking about that. But we were filming it when the election was going on, and that was definitely that feeling in the air that applied to this. But going into it, I never thought about the political side of it. But I do think it's relevant, and these feelings are definitely in the air today.

A Focus Features release, The Beguiled opens in theatres on June 23.