“The Beguiled”

The Beguiled

AT A CASUAL glance, Sofia Coppola’s The Beguiled looks like a historical drama, with all the white dresses, corsets and maidenly behaviour that implies. It is––thank God––nothing of the sort. Instead it’s a gripping, witty and sexually-charged feminist retelling of its more overtly steamy predecessor, and, to my taste, the best film Coppola has made in years.

During the American Civil War, and in the wild, restless fields and forests of a Southern plantation house, 11-year-old Amy (Oona Laurence) comes across wounded Yankee soldier John McBurney (Colin Farrell), who fled his regiment in a spectacularly cowardly and unmasculine act when the battle was at fever pitch. The child decides to take McBurney back to the school where she lives, where Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman) agrees that they should all do the “Christian” thing, and tend to their guest’s wounds before sending him on his way. It’s like this that seven women, include matriarch Martha, teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and five students, five themselves with a shirtless enemy soldier locked in their downstairs music room.


This rooster-in-a-henhouse scenario, based on the 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel, A Painted Devil, and its 1971 on-screen adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, is rendered with wonderful restraint, wit and affection by Sofia Coppola, whose film is less about the danger of sexual repression than the utter ridiculousness of it.


This rooster-in-a-henhouse scenario, based on the 1966 Thomas Cullinan novel, A Painted Devil, and its 1971 on-screen adaptation starring Clint Eastwood, is rendered with wonderful restraint, wit and affection by Sofia Coppola, whose film is less about the danger of sexual repression than the utter ridiculousness of it. What ensues is a film in which the various angelic-seeming (and looking) occupants of the house––long starved of male attention––all make a play, so to speak, on their charming guest, with predictably amusing consequences.

The Beguiled is not so much bubbling or fizzing as overflowing with sexual tension. From the mushrooms in the fields outside to the columns of the dilapidated plantation home, we are reminded of what is occupying the thoughts of the women inside, and of the stupid, placid roles they’re expected to play. Cinematographer Philippe le Sourd, in his first collaboration with Coppola, skilfully captures the isolation of our spirited if repressed heroines and the wildness of the outside. Le Sourd’s camera lingers on the overgrown Virginia plant life and on the home hidden away within it. These tableaux dictate the tempo of the film, and reminds us of Coppola’s knack for creating a dreamlike atmosphere that tells us who the characters are and implies who they want to be.


The best scenes of The Beguiled are the dinners and musical evenings the women contrive for their guest. In one brilliant scene at the dinner table, the women try to gain an advantage over one another by declaring the role they had in the making of an apple pie. This ends with the youngest girl, Marie, saying weakly, “Apple pie is my favourite.”


The best scenes of The Beguiled are the dinners and musical evenings the women contrive for their guest. In one brilliant scene at the dinner table, the women try to gain an advantage over one another by declaring the role they had in the making of an apple pie. This ends with the youngest girl, Marie, saying weakly, “Apple pie is my favourite.” Meanwhile, the events unfold to the intermittent and subtle tones of the French band Phoenix, with whom Coppola collaborated in Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring. The role of music in The Beguiled is an uncharacteristically understated one for a Coppola film but no less effective, specifically in setting the scene for the two acts into which the film is effectively divided.

Events inevitably come to a head and conclude in satisfying fashion with a glorious scene oozing with tension and menace, and when the film ends it does so with no stones, so to speak, left unturned.  The Beguiled is a thoroughly effective and entertaining psychodrama underpinned––or perhaps I should say made far better––by a handful of near-faultless central performances and sculpted by the intelligent, conscientious direction of an elite filmmaker.

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“The Lobster”

The Lobster

EVERYONE WILL, AT SOME point in their life, have woken up with a bemused expression on their face, and turned to their other half, and described a particularly bizarre dream. Few of those people, however, will have felt the urge to turn whatever peculiar happenings their subconscious has conjured up into a feature film.

I suppose that is to pay tribute to the creative confidence of Yorgis Lanthimos, whose charming comedy-romance The Lobster is, to employ that overused and badly-used word, as dreamlike as you can get.

The film is set in a dystopian future in which all people must find a husband or wife or be turned into an animal of their choosing. After his wife leaves him for another man, the bespectacled, overweight David (Colin Farrell) arrives at a hotel for singletons, where Hotel Manager (Olivia Colman) tells him that he has forty-five days to find a romantic partner, and asks him, should he fail to do this, if he has thought about what animal he would like to be transformed into. “Yes. A lobster,” David replies, without hesitation.

In the world of The Lobster, everyone talks unsmilingly in a staccato monotone, and romantic relationships are built exclusively on minor commonalities such as short-sightedness or a propensity to bleed from the nose, rather than genuine connection. The sheer strangeness of Lanthimos’s world is funny in and of itself, and made more funny by the interactions of its eccentric characters, played by a fine cast which includes Olivia Colman, Ben Whishaw, Rachel Weiss and Léa Seydoux.

But how much you enjoy The Lobster depends to a great extent on your sense of humour. It has that unique and ridiculous quality you might find in an episode of Monty Python or The Mighty Boosh rather than, say, Yes, Minister.

But it doesn’t always work. In The Lobster’s funniest moments, such as when Limping Man (Ben Whishaw) describes climbing into the wolf enclosure at the zoo (his mother having been turned into one) and being savaged by all but two, and then speculating that his mother was probably one of the two, it is really very funny. But there are other times––and a great deal of them––when the attempts at humour fail miserably, and the random behaviour of the characters is dull, rather than quirky. This tends to happen towards the latter end of the film, when the randomness that made so much of the first half so entertaining starts to become quite predictable, and the need to bring the narrative to a conclusive and satisfying end limits the potential for comedy.The Lobster

There are genuinely tender moments in The Lobster, made more tender by the coldness of the interactions, romantic or otherwise, of other characters, and the social clumsiness of the participants. In this world of forced affection, it is real affection that is palpably absent, so Lanthimos has something to say on the nebulous nature of genuine connection and on the equal loneliness of single life and finding yourself in a passionless relationship (the former, he suggests, still being preferable to the latter.)

Lanthimos must be praised for the sheer ambition of The Lobster if nothing else, but he also succeeds in making a film that, underneath all its strangeness, is funny and genuinely endearing, even if it fades towards the end.

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