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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Obsession & Old Pearls; My Cousin Rachel (2017), dir: Roger Michell

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The world was on fire and no one could save me but you

It’s strange what desire will make foolish people do

I’d never dreamed that I’d meet somebody like you

And I’d never dreamed that I’d lose somebody like you

 

A cover of Chris Isaak’s Wicked Game (performed by Ursine Vulpine ft. Annaca) was chosen to dress the film’s trailer and I believe there couldn’t have been a more appropriate song.

The film is an adaptation of Daphne’s du Maurier 1951 novel of the same name, written and directed by the South African director, Roger Michell. I’ve previously watched the original 1952 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton so the instant comparison in my head favoured the most recent version. The film’s cinematography by Joseph LaShelle elevates the beauty and elegance of British countryside (the story unfolds in a Cornwall estate) and the excellent performances. In fact, My Cousin Rachel has a theatrical feel in its directing and acting, as the cast is responsible for thrilling scenes that focus on dialogue and atmosphere. Speaking of which, the lush score composed by Rael Jones designs a mysterious and gloom frame.

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Throughout the film I developed tension and discomfort that kept me company all the way through the end, which I welcomed like a breath of fresh air because it concluded my agony and sadness. The exquisite photography was enhanced by the film’s Victorian setting, where we meet a woman, Rachel who is suspected to have committed slow and well-calculated murder by poisoning her husband. Rachel, portrayed by the masterful and powerful in all her performances Rachel Weisz, is a unique specimen of her sex. She is astonishingly beautiful and cunningly seductive. Weisz brings a dark and tragic tone to her character that lies under her confidence and disarming sexuality.

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There is great mystery surrounding Rachel as not only the facts of her past are only speculated upon but also because her every sentence and full-of-meaning looks promise an insight into her soul while in contrast, they give ground to further confusion. Accused of having turned into a sinister and grasping wife who, as the cherry on top has viciously got rid of her husband, she starts a love affair with Philip, her late husband’s nephew.

Admittedly, Rachel is neither trustworthy nor frank but she should not be placed on the other tip of the scale either, in my opinion. It is wisely said that the truth always lies somewhere in the middle. She’s passionate, sensitive and kind but also smart and shameless. She apparently has come to the realisation that only by achieving her financial and marital independence she can become her own person and enjoy a free life and thus, employs every mean to accomplish her goals.

It is often forgotten that in times when women were eternally dependent on their fathers and husbands, seeking independence took great courage and could trigger survival instincts similar to those of an animal who’s fallen into a deathly trap and fights for its life.

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Sam Claflin creates a magnetising and tormented Philip that falls unexpectedly in love and loses all reason. As Claflin mentions in an interview, Philip is a boy who believes he’s a man, and he successfully plays that part as a student and a loving nephew up until the point when his whole world crumbles: the man who raised him and considers his father, his Uncle Ambrose dies and leaves cues that incriminate his wife.

There is such childishness, innocence and naivety in Philip that turn him into an almost antipathetic character as he is perceived as a weak, google-eyed, untrained puppy and thus, idiotic in his altruistic acts of love. However, Philip doesn’t lack a darker side: he is possessive, impulsive and ill-tempered with violent outbursts that remind us that even the most gullible people can cause great harm. In his defence however, Philip who hasn’t interacted with women growing up is the most vulnerable prey for an experienced and manipulative woman that also happens to be his first love and sexual experience.

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In all his inner mess and outrageous, most eccentric and neurotic behaviour, he never loses one friend, the sweet and protective Louise (Holliday Grainger). Louise is not the opposite of Rachel but demonstrates another kind of strength and confidence. She is plainly in love with Philip and despite having to put up with his insults and a broken heart, she remains a loyal friend and gains our respect and admiration.

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Did Rachel poison them, or didn’t she?

She did! I believe that when Ambrose’s mental state was permanently affected by his brain tumor, she chose to poison him and set herself free from an abusive – despite it being none of his fault – husband. Later on, when Philip became asphyxiating, she had to bring back her poisonous herbs, only to regret it shortly afterwards – perhaps moved by his love and devotion, or feeling pity for his foolishness – and decide to see to his health.

The beauty in stories that leave you wondering is the complexity and sincerity attributed to the characters in the process. When a film achieves confusion to such extent then it has provided an interesting tale of mystery, deceit and complicated personalities.

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Finally, there were some incredible scenes beautifully-executed by Weisz and Claflin. Let’s take their first encounter for instance, where she offers him tea and cake, and he needs to lick his fingers from the melting butter. In the original film, it’s a comment lost between the lines and Burton’s sterile response is easily forgotten. In complete contrast, Michell and his performers take those lines and make an erotic, uneasy and utterly memorable scene out of them. The same stays true for the scene of whispers exchanged over a whipping Rachel, Philip’s outburst and many others.

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After the film you might want to read Du Maurier’s novel, listen to the lush and dark original score, remember a time when you were innocent and gullible in the matters of love, look up how many poisonous seeds exist in nature, debate whether Rachel is guilty or not, and finally make yourselves a hideous, healthy brew while pondering about the irresistibly seductive people you’ve met in your life so far.