With The Beguiled, Sofia Coppola makes Southern Gothic American civil war tale her own

Director’s new film starring Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning tells a ‘story of power between men and women’ and will vie for honours at the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival in May

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 11:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 11:04am

Sofia Coppola’s low-key personal style and soft-spoken demeanour can make it easy to overlook that she is among the world’s most celebrated contemporary filmmakers. Her movies float gossamer light, though anchored by a steely will – not unlike the director herself.

She won an Oscar for the screenplay to 2003’s Lost in Translation and was nominated for best director as well – one of only four women ever nominated for the Academy Award for director. Her new picture, The Beguiled, will have its world premiere next month as part of the main competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

Set during the American civil war, the film features a wounded Union solider (Colin Farrell) who finds refuge on the grounds of a Southern girls school whose residents include Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst and Elle Fanning. As Farrell’s character convalesces, it becomes increasingly unclear whether he is manipulating his female caregivers or whether they are playing out their own power games through him.

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Coppola’s movie is based on the 1966 novel of the same name by Thomas Cullinan, which was previously adapted for film in 1971 by director Don Siegel and starring Clint Eastwood. After watching the original at the suggestion of her long-time production designer Anne Ross (also an executive producer on The Beguiled), Coppola found herself unexpectedly haunted by the story, which lingered in her mind.

“I just thought the premise was so interesting, because the story of power between men and women was such an interesting, loaded topic, and this premise really heightened it with this setting during the civil war,” the 45-year-old director said. “The women were raised to be these perfect feminine creatures there for men, and then all the men disappear.”

Coppola said that while shooting at the historic Madewood Plantation House in the US state of Louisiana, the film inadvertently gained a more contemporary influence. Portions of Beyoncé’s longform Lemonade video were shot at the same location, and actresses Fanning and Dunst re-created an image of Beyoncé and Serena Williams posing on a carved chair that was posted online. Both images have an enigmatic mix of languid sexuality and forceful feminine power.

“I didn’t see Lemonade, but I saw the chair and it was explained to me,” Coppola said. “Definitely, we had a bunch of references, and there is that kind of feminine, pastoral world of faded nature that the movie starts in, but then I love that it takes a dark turn.

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“I was really excited about the whole Southern Gothic genre and really embracing that. Especially when they were in their long white nightgowns at night with their candelabras, I got so into it. That was a fun element to get into, the Southern Gothic style and the challenge of how to do that in my own way, to find my own style within that genre.”

Coppola has often worked with young or unknown performers, capturing pivotal performances from Dunst, Fanning, Scarlett Johansson and Emma Watson. But other than Bill Murray, she has rarely worked with seasoned, full-on movie stars of the likes of Kidman or Farrell. Coppola admitted that she had Kidman in mind when writing her screenplay.

“I don’t want to say intimidated, but she was something new, and she’s such an experienced, talented actress,” Coppola said. “It was like watching a virtuoso or an incredible athlete. We’d do a scene, and she’d have five different emotions going on at the same time.”