I violated my film buff principles when I went to see Sofia Coppola’s remake of Don Siegel’s The Beguiled. I hate remakes, especially remakes of good movies. I was convinced by an article in the NYT that Coppola’s vision was so different from Siegel’s that I should give the remake a chance. Coppola *is* a very feminine director and Siegel was a manly man director of genre films. Their interpretations *are* different but it’s hard to think of any changes that Coppola made that improved the story. In short, I wish I’d stuck to my guns and stayed away.
Dr. A and I watched the 1971 version again a few days before going to the movies. It’s a terrific, suspenseful, and deeply weird movie with the Civil War as an important character. Eastwood plays a surprisingly chatty Union corporal named John McBurney. It seemed like a better fit for Paul Newman or Jim Garner BUT Clint rocked the part.
The Beguiled is fundamentally a Southern Gothic tale in the tradition of Flannery O’Connor. Coppola has removed some of the elements that made the story juicy, ripe, and entertaining. She’s also desexed the movie and reduced headmistress Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) to prim and propertude. Is that a word? Coppola’s movie removes the Gothic from Southern Gothic, which makes it feel more like a southern fried episode of Downton Abbey set in Virginia. It was, however, filmed in Louisiana which is obvious by the landscape. Siegel too filmed in the Gret Stet but his movie was set in Mississippi. That made much more sense.
Then there are Coppola’s offenses against history. First, the Civil War is an after thought to the story. The war provides a menacing backdrop to Siegel’s 1971 film whereas it’s incidental to Coppola’s fixation on atmospherics. Then, there’s the dismissal of slavery in a line of dialogue: “The slaves left.” This is a movie set in the South that has no black characters whereas one of the best performances in Siegel’s film came from Mae Mercer as Hallie the enslaved housekeeper.
I was surprised when I looked up the running times of the two movies and learned that the 2017 version is 12 minutes shorter than the original. It seems much longer as the pacing is as slow as molasses and little happens until the last act. Sofia Coppola has always been much more interested in atmospherics than story-telling. It’s the fatal flaw in this movie: The Beguiled is not a subtle, nuanced story and Coppola’s attempt to make it one renders it dull and lifeless.
In the end, my issues with Coppola’s movie boil down to my taste in directors. Like the original French auteur theorists, I prefer the work of unpretentious genre directors such as Don Siegel to those filmmakers who are self-consciously arty like Ms. Coppola. It has nothing to do with gender but with style. It’s a pity because I *love* Lost In Translation but I cannot say the same about her latest effort.
I give Don Siegel’s 1971 version of The Beguiled 3 stars, an Adrastos Grade of B and an Ebertian thumbs up. As to the 2017 remake, I give it 2 stars, an Adrastos Grade of C and thumbs down. If anything, Dr. A disliked the remake more than I did because Coppola transformed Miss Martha, the head mistress played first by Geraldine Page and then Nicole Kidman, from a slightly crazy badass into a prim and proper Southern lady. Bad choice.
Next time, I’ll skip the remake.