The limp that mushroomed into a castration – The Beguiled (2017), dir: Sofia Coppola

Sofia Coppola’s new film tells the tragic story of eight people brought together by circumstances, or in other words tells the dark tale born by two opposing forces, the man and the woman, the sex drive and the suppression of instincts, the punishing control and the uncontrollable freedom.

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The Beguiled is an adaptation of Don Siegel’s 1971 film of the same name, both based on the Thomas P. Cullinan’s 1966 novel “A Painted Devil”. I strongly encourage you to watch the original film, starring Clint Eastwood only to perceive how unsimilar can be two stories drilling from one source (with many of the dialogues and scenes found in both). The tone of the films is so diametrically opposite and feels like two people told you the same story but saw its characters in an utterly different light. The first person saw a school of sexually frustrated young girls and lonely hugs that stage a porn play with a wounded soldier at the lead and the second person saw ladies, frustrated with their drained of pleasure and excitement lives whose most raw and vengeful instincts get triggered by the seductive presence of a wounded soldier.

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The original film is eccentric, crude and gripping as it strips (literally) the heroines and villainises them either through their admittedly cruel actions or through their manic claim of the Corporal’s attention. Coppola wouldn’t stand for such a simplistic depiction of sexual deprivation and carnal desire so she created an adaptation far more fair to the female psych and libido. Elle Fanning’s Alicia is a teenage girl bored to the death in this cage of a school and filled with hormones in her stage of sexual awakening and not a slutty and persistent little devil, acting with the confidence of a much older and experienced woman (Jo Ann Harris).

In addition, leaving out several controversial elements of the first movie help maintain focus on the central storyline, such as McBurney’s kiss to the 12-year old Amy after he reassures her that she’s “old enough for kisses” (eh, pervert alert right there…), or the fact that Miss Martha’s late brother was also her lover (eh, brotherly love took a wildly inappropriate turn…).

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It is no wonder Sofia Coppola won the Best Director award in Cannes Festival, as The Beguiled is a masterful cinematic piece that gently pulls you into the world of these women.  The images of the countryside with the misty landscapes and the  ghost-like whipping willows surrounding the school of white marble in classical architectural style alternate with the claustrophobic scenes that find  its inhabitants interacting under the mysterious candle light (choosing a shorter aspect ratio, resembling a box in order to transit the sense of entrapment).

The film tells the story laconically (94 minutes to be precise) and yet, achieves a deeper character analysis than the 1971 feature. The narrative develops in a perfect circle; Amy gathering mushrooms in the forest, McBurney being carried by the girls, the lens laid steady outside the main gate.

This version builds up a subtle tension in the atmosphere that facilitates our immersion into the era and the psych of those women. The stylised environment, the purity of nature and the beauty and innocence of the girls as demonstrated by their manners, their clothes and their lessons makes the unescapable decay even more painful.

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This adaptation of The Beguiled is elegant and flows with the ease of a fairytale on screen despite it being a dark and emotionally dry one. There isn’t enough drama stemming from the unfortunate sequence of events but the tension and tragic irony are effectively communicated. A great part in that plays the lack of a soundtrack, as the story is told in the silence of the Virginian countryside, with only the sound of nature (birds, wind, etc.) and the violent echo of cannons dressing the images.

There are comical elements dispersed into the narrative and the depiction of the characters too. For instance, Edwina in her silent torment and lazy movements may come across less tragic than intended and Miss Martha, being so self-conflicted and always pretending to be composed, blunt and austere might make you laugh. That is not to say that Nicole Kidman’s portrayal is a caricature of a religious, old maid. On the contrary, it is a flawless one and that’s why in her desperate state, we can perceive her repressed sensitivity as well as the ridiculousness of her behaviour.

Colin Farrell is an exceptional and gifted performer that can incorporate sensitivity, anger, pain and laughter in his act. His McBurney is particularly chivalrous and charming but also, a true chameleon that becomes instantly aware that his survival is strictly dependent on him choosing the right shades of colours to match the diverse expectations of his interlocutors.

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The scenes you’ll love…

The film is emotionally flat and visually delicate, leaving you with a sensation resembling the clean and soft taste of vanilla, enjoyable but not strong enough for your palate. Nevertheless, there are many intense scenes that anchor this period fairytale.

In fact, the scenes that draw the dynamic among the women in relation to their handsome guest are a pleasure to watch. One of my favourite scenes is the apple pie dinner scene where all of them strive to earn McBurney’s affections in the most naïve and foolish manner.

The scene where Corporal McBurney attempts to get closer to Miss Edwina by diving into her psychological portrait and giving flesh to her fantasy of an empathic and romantic lover. The trembling hands, the facial expressions betraying her agony and the shattered voice when admitting that her greatest wish is to be taken away from that soul-draining place are only a few elements of Kirsten Dunst’s performance that prove how incredible an actress she is.

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Another remarkable scene is the bizarrely erotic sponge bath Miss Martha gives to McBurney. Nicole Kidman’s careful pauses and heavy exhalations show how incredibly hard is to be a constant judge of one’s true self. I wouldn’t say that Miss Martha is facing a dilemma because unlike Edwina, she made the choice between duty and desire a long time ago. Of course, her cold masquerade is in fact transparent and underneath it defenseless lay her needs and desires, ready to be triggered by McBurney’s presence and deliberate charm.

Towards the end comes the scene where Jon confronts the “butchers” and it’s an impressive and painful act followed by Edwina’s meaningful and passionate apology.

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So who is the beguiled in this story?

I don’t believe that the ladies are deceived by McBurney. They are all certainly aroused and seduced by him but it happened due to his playful nature and not with a malicious intent.

It is perhaps McBurney who should be considered the beguiled character in this story because he was misled by the graceful women who welcomed and admired him, only to wake up one morning with no second leg, or their sympathy.

I bet that the majority of women watching the film will sympathise with McBurney on how cruelly he was treated. Jon is man that received great attention and an equal amount of temptation so he acted as nature intended. He is not a bad man or deceitful but simply playful and flirty. The ladies however, turned from innocent admirers to vicious and “vengeful bitches” when he became a threat. Nonetheless, at that time women had no power to display and many hazards to look out for, and it is well known that fear mixed with frustration make the deadliest cocktail.

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Some might argue that it is self-preservation that led them to murder but it is certainly more than that. They had the option of reconciliation but instead chose to complete his punishment and send him off for the long journey.

The turning point for the tragedy was the decision to deprive him of his limp and the reasons behind Miss Martha’s action and Edwina’s silent participation are ambiguous. The amputation could be a metaphor for the castration that women secretly desire to perform on men as the apogee of their punishment for having been oppressed by them physically, mentally, socially and sexually for centuries.

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In contrast, it could be a broader critic on the cruelty and menace that rejection brings out in every human being, irrespective of gender. Men could have performed a different but equally harsh punishment to the woman who after having toyed with their feelings choice the bed of a much younger man. Similarly, had it been a male school and a Joanna instead of Jon, the antagonistic, young boys would have conspired to get rid of her after her fall from their grace.

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After the film you might want to talk with a Southern accent, eat apple pie or/and mushrooms, admit it’s useful to know how to stitch nice & even, look up how many poisonous mushrooms exist (and naturally, avoid them for a while for no actual reason…), you might be extra careful when walking up & down the stairs and finally, imagine an alternative ending in which the heroines decide they definitely need a gardener and also, learn how to share.

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Get wheeled into an intoxicating rhythm; Baby Driver (2017), dir: Edgar Wright

Can you remember the last time you watched a film, got out of the theatre and turned back inside straight away?

That’s what happened to me after Baby Driver; minutes after leaving, I made a 180 degrees turn because I just HAD to experience the whole thing again.  I wanted to imprint every scene in conjunction with its soundtrack in my memory, grasp every detail in the performances, and essentially enjoy myself on repeat. Baby Driver is a fascinating and magically entertaining motion picture that captivates the audience with its caricature characters and stylised micro-settings. Music is employed as a narrative mechanism that is equally a recipe for infectious joy and excitement.

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The first scene is an excellent example of Wright’s incredible directing style: Baby is lip-singing Bellbottoms (performed by The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion) while waiting for the gang to wrap up the robbery, get into his red Subaru so that an impressive and thrilling car-chase can start. This particular set-piece is masterfully choreographed and quickly gives away that Baby Driver in a few decades time will be surely enlisted in the classics.

Scenes are not merely dressed with the appropriate songs but they are purposefully designed to match their rhythm and intensity. Wright’s brilliant concept makes his film particularly powerful for everyone; just count the times you’ve attached everyday moments to particular songs and swayed to their melody by improvising scenes that resembled music videos, or the times you replayed memories while enriching them with song that could turn them into perfectly synchronised musical settings.

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Baby Driver is an amalgam of crime, violence, romance, action, thriller, drama, dark comedy, and musical and therefore, it constitutes a genre in itself. The music score is in complete harmony with every movement and sound in the scenes, in a way that music and narrative are inextricably linked.  Instead of being disorienting, Baby Driver’s musical flow bizarrely adds to its structure and storytelling goals. And it is precisely thanks to its fluidity and multi-sensory richness that it makes you crave re-watching the scenes in order to catch things you might have missed the first time.

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Baby Driver is a stylish hybrid dipped into American aesthetics; it reflects modern pop-culture through the lens of cult classics hence, notably resembling Tarantino in the ‘90’s (minus the explicit, blood- infested violence) but at the same time, it feels old-fashioned in its details, by presumably drawing inspiration from the classic Hollywood era (as indicated by the B& W day-dreaming scenes with Baby and Debora).

One of the film’s greatest strengths is the assembly of amazing and memorable supporting characters. They’re all conceived in a way that they fall into stereotypes, yet they gloriously leave their distinctive cinematic print thanks to Wright’s witty dialogues and the cast’s remarkable performances.

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Buddy and Darling represent a more evolved and sexy version of Bonny & Clyde, in that they are partners in life and in crime. Eiza González presents Darling, a seductive and vengeful thief who is also, a jewel and bubble-gum enthusiast and thankfully, doesn’t disappear under a clichéd and decorative depiction of the femme-fatale in crime films. Jon Hamm portrays her other half, Buddy who is a relatively warm, easy-going guy with a distinctive deep voice and sarcastic grim. The plot’s turn in act three gives Hamm the opportunity to branch off the attractive, macho man persona and dive into raging insanity.

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Griff’s (Jon Bernthal) frustration towards Baby’s attitude spurs a comical monologue that balances a humorous teasing against a bleak warning. Jamie Foxx as Bats is intense and funny but transmitting a very unsettling and dangerous vibe though his maniacal and dry gaze. Kevin Spacey stays faithful to a cold, distant and almost robotic portrayal of Doc, only for his unintentional paternal instincts to be revealed towards the film’s epilogue, triggered by his emotional vulnerability towards true love.

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Lily James gives us a Debora that can be easily adored thanks to her evident beauty and graceful personality that is conveniently subtle and discreet enough only to support and trigger Ansel Elgort’s lead performance as Baby (with whom she also has great chemistry). Elgort feels natural and spontaneous on-screen and ticks all the right boxes as he convincingly appears tender (especially when caring for his foster dad), romantic and innocent but also, fearless and brave.

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After the film you might want to watch it again (yeah, it’s that good!), wear your sunglasses all day & night, talk less, make your own playlists that match with specific memories or people, you might seriously consider it’s high time you fell in love (again?), exceed speed limit (and potentially get a speeding fine too), contemplate what kind of illegal activity would suit you best and finally, come up with a cool nickname for your criminal alter-ego.