In March 2016, Variety reported that Sofia Coppola was set to write and direct a remake of Don Siegel’s 1971 film The Beguiled, itself based on Thomas P. Cullinan’s novel ‘A Painted Devil’. Production began on 31st October, and Elle Fanning, one of the film’s stars, posted a photograph to her Instagram account of a hazy woodland clearing with a clapperboard hovering in shot announcing the first take. The film is set for a widespread international release in late June 2017.
The teaser trailer begins with the image of a pre-teenage girl wearing a long check dress with her hair tied back into two long plaits. She makes her way into a misty grove, tree branches arching to form a tunnel over her slight frame. Crouching down to collect nuts or seeds for her wicker basket, she gasps with fright: hidden behind a tree is a wounded soldier. We cut to a long shot of a garden and a lavish plantation style manor house, the girl urgently calling “Miss Martha! Miss Martha!” A gaggle of women wearing white gather around the body of the soldier; an urgent voice commands them to help and the body is lifted into the house. Close-ups on Kirsten Dunst and Nicole Kidman follow: we see them praying in private, washing the soldier’s body, and leading the girls in worship. The introduction of the swarthy solider to the all-female school is seen to evoke various passions, and, following the announcement that this is film from Sofia Coppola (in a bright red font set against black) we see kissing, disrobing, and tousled sheets. In one candlelit scene, the girls are gathered around a dinner table and a voiceover promises that the Union soldier will be shown “some real Southern hospitality”. Violence simmers beneath the surface, however, and the trailer finishes with the soldier’s distressed call – “what have you done to me, you vengeful bitches?”.
In just one minute forty seconds, the teaser makes intriguing suggestions about the way Coppola’s sixth feature film extends, enriches and enhances the themes and politics of her body of work so far. It develops previous ideas, about girls alone together; about the destructive and dangerous role of heterosexual sex, and how it comes to threaten female survival; about the possible pleasures girls might be able to indulge in, even in restricted and confined environments. It does so though in what promises to be a new tone, with the antebellum architecture, eerie soundtrack, ghostly woods, notable accents, and the threat of violence and revenge. This is Coppola, but Southern gothic style.
The gothic has never really been that far from Coppola’s aesthetic and practice: consider how frequently her films end up with girls entombed, either through death or imprisonment. The Virgin Suicides invests a stereotypical suburb with anxieties about environmental degradation and decay, as well as a yearning for lost childhood innocence, linking fear and desire in a way that is typically gothic. Similarly, Lost in Translation makes the corporate anonymity of the Tokyo Park Hyatt into a kind of Gothic castle of endless corridors, nightmarish wakefulness, unwanted sexual advances and devious machines for Bob Harris (Bill Murray) until Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson) provides him with the means and the motivation to escape. It is disguised as their energised superhero doubles – with him in a T-shirt turned inside out, her in a pink wig – that they explore Tokyo as a kind of fantasy playground, before finally succumbing to sleep. Even The Bling Ring has a gothic undercurrent in its tale of ‘ordinary’ teens desperately trying to turn themselves into replicas or doubles of the celebrities they emulate. Their vampiric existence turns not on drinking their blood but on stealing their clothes. Let’s not forget that the gothic is fertile terrain for feminism, with its recurrent interest in what goes on behind closed doors: in those often buried questions of power and sex.
Now, with The Beguiled, the gothic impulse that lies below the dreamy, flower-filled meadows of The Virgin Suicides, neon lit exoticism of Lost in Translation’s Tokyo, or raucous, champagne fuelled parties held either in Versailles or Paris Hilton’s mansion (Marie Antoinette, The Bling Ring) is given full expression, as if finally – finally! – Coppola is letting her girls get violent. Whereas previous films, whatever their considerable differences in genre, feel, and atmosphere, have shown us a potential female rebellion that is stifled variously by acquiring things or committing suicide, so that the overall impression is one of torpor and languor, here is a promise that finally we’ll get a properly gothic, blood soaked Coppola that acknowledges and even welcomes female anger. Is this a sign that Coppola is finding more confidence in a more overt feminist politics? While earlier films were never blind to gender injustice, from the treatment of Marie Antoinette as human incubator for French royalty to the sexual double standard that policed the Lisbon girls (The Virgin Suicides), her films retained a strangely muted tone where girls carved out alternative spaces for their pleasure (music, parties, fashion) and tried their best to find their place in the world, even while chafing against its conventions. Now, women are vengeful bitches, castrating demons, lashing out against the world and its demands. The Beguiled offers a portrait of feminine world-making with a new gory twist. It reprises Coppola’s close attention to adolescent girlhood and asks again how girls grow into women in a world that cherishes feminine innocence but condemns, or at least contains, feminine desire. Can one exist as a fully desiring adult female in Coppola’s world? What price must be paid?
Coppola’s films pay close attention to feminine rites of passage. In The Virgin Suicides, the four remaining sisters attend their school prom together and Coppola creates a dreamy, light filled, nostalgic view of girlhood, even as it is tinged with tragedy and despair. The prom scene plays acutely on this tension between the luminous shimmer of the aesthetic and the dark subject matter of girlhood depression and sexual vulnerability. The scene recalls in particular a photograph by Bill Owens of high school kids at a prom surrounded by tinfoil stars. As the other sisters dance with their dates, Lux is persuaded by Tripp to accompany him alone to the football field. They have sex, and the film is unclear about how consensual this act is — we see Lux struggling up against his heavy body. When she is late home from prom, Lux’s mother insists on the girls staying at home, so the school prom marks the first and only time the girls experience the passage between the innocent world of childhood and the adolescent pleasures that lead toward adulthood. In Marie Antoinette we see the process by which a young Austrian princess is transformed into the wife of the dauphine of France. She travels to the neutral territory of Schuttern, between France and Austria, where a ceremony takes place that divests her of everything – clothing, attendants, and even her little dog. The removal of her clothes is shown in a flurry of close-ups that fragment her body followed by a long shot where we see her final undergarments being removed by two maids. Marie-Antoinette is filmed from behind. The slenderness and delicacy of her naked adolescent body is emphasised as she is framed between the thick dark curtains of the ceremonial tent in the foreground of the image and a huge chandelier hangs above her head. She is poised between two worlds: the innocence and naturalness of her childhood and the vast mechanism of the court and its trappings. The precarious vulnerability of her situation as foreigner is made visible: she is dependent on others for her clothes, and by extension her new identity. The first French garment we see her being clothed in is a bright blue cage-like crinoline, emphasising the stifling nature of her new life.
In other films, however, Coppola broadens her focus from the painful, gendered process through which girls are acculturated into womanhood via their entanglement with heterosexual relations, and shows us other characters also struggling to find their identity. Here, she demonstrates sympathy too for her male characters. While Charlotte in Lost in Translation attempts to find meaning for herself via the rituals she sees at local Buddhist and Shinto shrines, her own marriage ceremony having failed utterly to help her understand herself or the person she’s married to, Bob Harris is also undergoing some kind of mid-life crisis (indeed, Charlotte wryly asks him if he’s bought a Porsche yet). Bob and Charlotte are able to connect precisely through their own joint sense of lostness – existing in the double limbo of an anonymous upscale hotel and the strange curious world of Japan where neon signs glow enigmatically for those unable to read kanji. Similarly, Johnny Marco in Somewhere is barely able to function, polite and perfunctory with almost everyone apart from his daughter. If adulthood appears threatening and stifling, protracted adolescence, at least for these men, is certainly not an answer either. It seems that in The Beguiled, as in Marie Antoinette, this sympathy for male crisis is attenuated as we return to a world in which women are more closely and carefully policed, their bodies constrained by corsets that literalise the cages in which they must exist. Whereas as in the rococo world of Marie Antoinette, their delightful surface is offered as compensation for the killer clothes, here the distraction is furnished by the arrival of a man made vulnerable through his injured flesh – so an invitation to depth and messiness rather than gleaming surface and decorative fripperies.
The Beguiled seems to bring us full circle. It is the first literary adaptation Coppola has carried out since The Virgin Suicides. Through offering us a film that promises more explicit sexual politics than ever before, Coppola seems also to be offering us a new take on female desire and politics. While Coppola’s girls have always allowed us sympathetic enjoyment of girlish pleasures without condemning them as frivolous, showcasing images of gorgeous sensual beauty, in the end the only answer that could be offered to dissatisfaction was more of the same: more champagne, more burglaries, more shoes, more sex. Characters become caught in spirals of repetition, peculiarly aimless. Might we now be moving beyond circularity and into revolution?
Fiona Handyside is a Senior Lecturer in Film at the University of Exeter. Her current book project is Sofia Coppola: A Cinema of Girlhood, to be published by I.B. Tauris.